It's been a tough year for libraries and librarians. Nationwide, it's been hard to miss headlines about budget cuts, staff reductions, library closures, as well as the questions surrounding the necessity of libraries, librarians—and books—in the digital age.
I've had my boots on the ground for the past five years as a children's librarian in a suburban community library, and I've experienced firsthand what it's like to come under fire on all these fronts, and how this can affect a librarian's work, life, and overall state of mind. What's it like to be a librarian today, when going to work means constantly trying to prove that your profession and skills are still relevant, and that your place of employment is worthy of being kept open? In a word: stressful.
Feeling the Pinch
Dealing with budget cuts is nothing new for librarians. Neither is the change that comes with new technologies in the library setting. And, yes, there have always been misperceptions about what a professional librarian really does. But at this moment in history, libraries and librarians are battening down the hatches against what feels like a perfect storm of threats.
According to the ALA's 2011 "State of America's Libraries Report," more than half the states report a decrease in funding over the past four years, "with cumulative cuts averaging greater than 10 percent." And the cuts don't stop at the state level, as local communities report decreases in local funding as well. My home state of Pennsylvania is one of the leaders when it comes to the number of libraries closed in the past year, with the ALA's survey reporting that as many as 10 Pennsylvania towns' libraries have closed or are prepared to shut their doors.
For many communities, library funding seems easy to cut precisely because of the widely accepted misperception that everything is now available online. Indeed, there are government officials and some constituents who truly believe that libraries are a quaint, outdated concept—a dusty repository for books—no longer necessary in the age of personal computers and Google.
At my own library, which serves a community of 33,000 people, recent budget cuts have been particularly painful. Like many libraries across the nation, we were forced to reduce staff in early 2011, including two full-time and one part-time librarian positions.
But those cuts did not come because demand for library service has decreased. In fact, demand is stronger than ever. The economic downturn that has local governments slashing library funding is the same circumstance driving more and more customers to the library. Legions of people who have never used or perhaps underutilized their local library, have seen it anew during this recession, including patrons seeking help with a job search or school work, those taking advantage of free entertainment, and, in some cases, people who are just looking for a comfortable place to stay warm (or cool).
The combination of cuts in service and staff, and a spike in demand, has left librarians scrambling to somehow fill in the gaps. This means working additional shifts and assuming additional duties often learned on the fly. And this inevitably causes strain, not only on the job but outside the workplace, too, as accommodating time off or changes in anyone's schedule can require some serious juggling.
Our customers, meanwhile, expect the library to maintain high service levels. They expect the latest bestselling books and popular DVDs and CDs in the collection, which requires both staff time to stay on top of journal reviews and new product release schedules, as well as difficult decisions to be made with limited funds. Patrons also expect the library to be a technology hub, with ample computers, fast Internet service, free WiFi. And increasingly, they expect e-books and downloadable audiobooks, as e-readers and mobile devices explode in popularity.