Thursday, July 28, 2005

The impact of financial problems on library systems and innovation

I haven't mentioned it here, but the public library system in Erie County, New York (the Buffalo area) is in dire straights. The system currently has 52 libraries and is anticipating closing 24 of them next year. Although that will save the system $4 million, that will not cover the system's budget shortfall. In addition, the Niagara Falls Public Library and its LaSalle Branch may have to close. These two budget-strapped libraries are in Niagara County, which is next to Erie County.

There are libraries all across the country that are facing severe budget pressure. The Salinas Public Library in California has grabbed headlines. In my larger region, the public libraries in Broome and Tompkins counties have had to cut back on services. Broome has also closed branch libraries. A library that closes may not stay closed forever. Sometimes -- as in the case of the public library in Corning, NY -- it just needs time to reorganize itself financially, make some other changes, rally its supporters and then re-open. The library in Corning was closed for a year and is better now than it was before.

So the good news is that a library closing is not the end of the world (as we saw with Corning) and that a library can emerge from this better than before. But that is likely not true for every library that closes. Many branches that close will stay closed and their resources consolidated. Library systems will shrink and focus on the essentials.

Sometimes these financial stresses will lead a library system to think creatively and to become innovative. Obviously, they cannot do things the same way, so how can they adapt to their new reality? What services can they create to attract and retain patrons? How can they now meet their patrons' needs?

Innovating in the middle of a financial disaster is not easy, but sometimes it is the stress of such times that lead to creative solutions. Sometimes we can only think out-of-the-box when the box is on the verge of disappearing. My favorite innovation story is not library-related but has to do with the Apollo 13 accident and the work of NASA to figure out how to create a filter for the spaceship's oxygen system out of parts that were on the craft.

Of course, I see digitization programs and digitized content as a way of reaching out in new ways to patrons. Maybe a library cannot create its own digital images, but it could link to and use materials provided by others. The library might create more of a web presence to replace those lost branches. Maybe a library might work with local businesses to install kiosks that could be used to tap into the virtual library?

Instead of loaning books, what if the library used its resources to create an "Internet Bookmobile" that can download and print books that are in the public domain (or where permission has been given). Brewster Kahle has demonstrated this technology in various parts of the world. Could it be that with library closures here in the U.S. that we should be considering it?

We've been hooked on the library being a place. Perhaps one thing that might come out of these crises is that the library will not be seen as a physical place, but as a virtual place where certain tools exist. Or perhaps a new type of library will be introduced; one that fits these new times?

If you have an opinion on this, I would welcome hearing from you -- please leave a comment.

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Go here to read a recent article on the Erie County libraries. The American Library Association has a post on the Niagara Falls libraries here.

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