Creativity at the Edge: Cutting Back on Library Services during Hard Times

By Amanda Moeller and Julie Gilbert

Gustavus Adolphus College, Folke Bernadotte Memorial Library

[Case Study, Article]

Introduction

In a service profession like librarianship, it can be difficult to conceive of ever saying no. We are in the business of helping people, after all. The very notion of saying no to our users may cause a spike of fear: if we say no, will people stop seeking our services? Will they stop seeing us as useful and helpful? Of course, circumstances sometimes arise that make it necessary for us to say no to taking on additional tasks and initiatives. Conditions might unfold in our personal lives that require us to step back for a time, or we may already be working at capacity and unable to take on anything new. We might say no after concluding that we simply do not have the time or energy to add more to our plates. Or we might realize that a new task does not fit within our priorities and we let it go. In these situations, we hope our colleagues are positioned to assist with the work or that the tasks are not essential and can be tabled for now.[i]

But what happens when the library as a whole faces overwhelming pressures, such as budget or staffing cuts, and is forced to say no on an organizational level? In these cases, the decision to say no involves not just the individual but the entire library. What happens when there simply are not enough people—or enough time—to conduct the library’s essential tasks? How do we negotiate the limits placed on the library with the needs of our patrons? These situations become complicated dances orchestrated to balance the needs of the library and the needs of employees. Navigating these unfolding realities requires a brave kind of creativity, one that maintains a spirit of service while also protecting employee well-being.

We were motivated to write this article based on our experiences navigating these circumstances as a staff member (Amanda) and faculty member (Julie) at our library. We work at a small, private liberal arts college in the Midwest. Our library employs a paraprofessional staff of nine; there are also six librarians who are faculty. In spring 2014, rumblings of financial cuts within the wider institution became a reality. Rather than lose an entire staff position, which was the proposition offered by institutional administration, the library opted to reduce staff contracts and to relinquish temporary positions created by two library faculty leaves. While responding to the cuts involved many conversations with the entire library staff, it also required us as individuals to explore the creativity needed to protect our own time and selves without harming the library, our colleagues or our patrons. The cuts also helped us evaluate our current practices in a new light, giving us renewed appreciation for our work as well as suggesting additional creative approaches we can take in the future.

Before we discuss our situation, we would like to note that we are writing this article based solely on our own experiences. While our colleagues will recognize specific situations and outcomes described in this article, they have their own stories to tell and we do not presume to speak for them.

Staff Perspective (Amanda)

We received a notice about staff reductions in the spring. This advance notice turned out to be quite fortunate due to the nature of the cut that staff received. My contract was permanently cut down to 10.5 months per year. We were required to take that remaining time from June to August when classes are not in session instead of taking shorter absences spread over the year like a traditional furlough. This shared requirement made any substantial staff cross-training too unwieldy to consider. Although I was relieved that the loss of a position had been avoided, I knew that a mandatory absence of this length would require planning and a greater dependence upon our summer student workers.

Our library has a large circulating print periodicals collection compared to peer colleges in the area and I am the only staff member assigned to Periodicals. I also have additional duties in Government Documents due to another staff cut the previous year that removed our library’s technician duties from a position. Like the rest of my coworkers, I rely on students for a variety of complex tasks. Although the training period for each student is significant, my students have proven themselves capable of anything that they are assigned.

Before the summer started, I updated my student guide and created detailed check-in notes for print titles in our ILS to reflect some of the quirks, labeling conventions, and potential concerns that tend to come up when checking in periodicals. Since we use prediction patterns, I also made sure that these were set. I chose to schedule myself almost the entirety of June for student training purposes and also to provide uninterrupted time to finalize our renewals for the year to come.

Summer is when important tasks such as stacks maintenance, weeding, and sending items to the bindery occur. I had to consider which ones I felt comfortable having the students handle without supervision. By moving our weeding process from summer to January, I gained the benefit of using my school-year student workers who would not need training to complete the task unlike our summer students.

I was initially concerned about finding smaller, low-supervision tasks to replace weeding beyond their daily processing work. This worry faded quickly. When I opened the matter up for discussion, both students suggested a variety of artistic and practical projects that I would not have considered otherwise. A joke about Ron Swanson’s favorite Government Document turned into a display of items “recommended” by characters in the television show Parks and Recreation. I have caught people standing in front of and even taking photos of the display, which frankly exceeds my wildest expectations for a Government Documents book display. Re-labeling bound periodicals with fading spine labels was another small project that they suggested which had a positive impact on the collection.

Since I spent less of my available time handling student worker concerns than I had anticipated, I found flexibility in my schedule. Around the same time, the librarians approached me about taking on some additional duties related to our Institutional Repository. I spent a little time each day reading articles about Open Access, looking through other libraries’ repositories, and learning about metadata standards. In a previous summer, I would have perhaps had the same number of hours to spend on this type of task, but having my small number of working days in July and August quite spaced out provided time for reflection that I would not have had otherwise.

New projects like assisting with the Institutional Repository also reflect the reality that the nature of my position will greatly change over the next few years. As we transition towards a greater amount of electronic subscriptions and Government Documents, both my students and I will spend less time handling individual items. The staff reduction has slightly hastened this change and helps us all to consider which areas are strategic priorities.

Although it takes creativity to find new ways to do the same work with less time and assistance available to us, I have found it to be possible in my specific case. By automating tasks, improving documentation, and shifting some of our summer tasks, I have been able to say no to plenty of things without sacrificing my ability to say yes to a compelling project that interests me. Having a shortened contract combined with increasing responsibilities has given me permission to look at my work with a more critical eye and yet also a more idealistic one as I consider how to make our immediate needs also work towards the ambitious goals that our library has for the future.

Librarian Perspective (Julie)

News of the potential cuts came while I was several months into a year-long sabbatical. One of our options for managing the budget cuts was to forego sabbatical replacements for the following year, meaning we would be down one librarian in the fall and two in the spring. For a library faculty of six, losing one-third of our workforce, even for a semester, was potentially devastating. The knowledge that giving up sabbatical replacements would preserve a staff position made the decision easy, however. In part, it signaled that the librarians were more than willing to share the pain inflicted on the paraprofessional staff. (Since all librarians are tenured members of the faculty, we have privileges and protections not available to the paraprofessional staff.) Even more, it was also the right thing to do, as our decision helped prevent the elimination of a staff position. With that said, it was not without complications, as it meant we were not able to retain a leave replacement who had been hoping to stay for a second year.

Once we decided to eliminate leave replacements, the librarians met to decide how we would cover our reference and instructional tasks. During our meetings, one pivotal statement guided our decisions: “If six people means six people’s work, five [or four] people means five [or four] people’s work.” If we were down one or two librarians, we would adjust our workload accordingly. My colleagues and I are committed to our students and believe that our reference and instruction work forms the core of what we do as information professionals. Still, we went into the meetings with a clear sense of our own limits: we would not be able to offer the full range of instructional services that we are able to do with full staffing.

We made the decision to cut reference hours by one person’s total desk hours in the fall and (nearly) two people’s desk hours in the spring, eliminating one entire evening shift and shortening other shifts. In total, we eliminated twelve hours per week from our normal reference schedule. In terms of instruction session scheduling, we left the decision on handling requests to individual librarians, with the shared agreement that we would each find our own limits for scheduling instruction sessions. Some options included identifying a maximum number of sessions per individual per week or prioritizing first year courses or research method courses. I elected to offer only one meeting per course (I frequently teach multiple sessions for a single course), as well as cutting back on the number of library lab sessions I teach for a research methods course.

The decisions were not without pain. Reduced reference desk hours meant fewer hours where we would be available to meet with students. Although reference desk visits have been dropping steadily for several years, cutting hours meant even fewer opportunities to connect with students and demonstrate the value of the one-on-one teaching that occurs at the desk. Research I have conducted on my courses, especially the multi-session ones, indicates multiple sessions for single courses work in terms of developing information literacy skills in students.[ii] It was disheartening to enter the semester knowing the students in my classroom would not have as many formal opportunities to develop as researchers.

Our desire to connect meaningfully with students at the desk got an unexpected boost from a number of faculty, many of whom required students to meet with a librarian at the desk to work on various projects. As an extra bonus, many of these students were first year students. This was a happy coincidence; while we had communicated our reference desk hours with the broader community, we had not undertaken any kind of faculty development to promote student use of the desk during our shortened schedules. Although required meetings at the reference desk can be artificial for some students, we have had the sense that most of the students left with a sense of the reference desk as a resource for them as they conduct research.

The required reference desk meetings piqued my curiosity and raised questions I will explore in the future, such as the impact such assignments have on the likelihood a student will return to the desk for help in this or other classes. An informal conversation with a colleague outside the department on the importance of peer tutoring has led me to consider recruiting peer reference tutors for the spring, which also provides a means for extending our reference desk coverage. (Ironically, we have successfully utilized peer reference tutors in the past but did not have time to recruit or train any for fall semester.) It also suggests ways in which the entire library should consider turning our attention more formally to faculty development work that encourages faculty to be more systematic in sending their students to the reference desk.

I found creative ways to approach my teaching, too. After I decided to cap the number of sessions I could do for each course, I was able to spend time thinking carefully about what was essential knowledge to convey in each session. I found this especially useful after returning to teaching after a year’s absence and approaching the classroom again. It also prompted better communication with classroom faculty, as we were able to focus student learning objectives in light of identifying key research needs. I communicated these objectives at the start of every session, which helped focus my time with the students as well as make them aware of why we were holding these sessions. I made use of alternate methods of contacting students, like emailing them prior to sessions to orient them to suggested resources for their research, then following up with reminder emails after a session.

Most importantly, my response to the cuts helped me redefine my job responsibilities. Each librarian has a special area of responsibility, like collection development or electronic resources. Prior to sabbatical, my focus was on finding ways to better connect patrons with our collections. While on sabbatical, I read library marketing literature, noting the degree to which true marketing involves gathering data about user needs and providing the best experience possible. I decided to expand my role to include connecting our students to our spaces and services, as well as our collections, renaming my position the User Experience Librarian. I am making plans to study how our students ask questions in the library, seeking ways to connect them better with reference services. This position will also help us continue to provide the best experiences possible to users, even during tough times.

Conclusion

In times like these, when we are faced with significant budget and staff cuts, the instinct might be to do more in order to prove the value of libraries to others. We might be motivated by a fear of backlash from our communities. Or maybe we simply fear letting down our patrons. But sometimes we are stretched so thin that we need to say no. Saying no can be counter cultural, but it can also provide us with a surprising burst of creativity. Both of us found that the cuts helped us reevaluate core services and motivated us to find new ways of doing things. We contemplated new questions that we will explore in the future. Above all, we both discovered ways to renew and refine our commitments to our positions. In many ways, the cuts gave us a new lens through which to examine and conduct our work, one that wrestles with the creativity necessary to provide excellent service to our patrons from suboptimal conditions.

Make no mistake, we would much rather have full staffing and budgets. The cuts to our library staff were painful on an organizational and personal level, especially for those staff who lost wages. Within these circumstances, however, we both found silver linings that help us work more effectively and dream more broadly, even within the natural limits of what we as employees can reasonably accomplish.

Endnotes

[i] For more information, we recommend the following piece by Emily Ford, which also includes a list of further reading: http://www.inthelibrarywiththeleadpipe.org/2009/how-do-you-say-no/

[ii] Gilbert, Julie K., Katherine Knutson, and Christopher P. Gilbert. “Adding an Integrated Library Component to an Undergraduate Research Methods Course.” PS: Political Science and Politics 45.1 (2012): 112-118. Print.

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