This blog represents most of the newspaper columns (appearing in various Colorado Community Newspapers and Yourhub.com) written by me, James LaRue, during the time in which I was the director of the Douglas County Libraries in Douglas County, Colorado. (Some columns are missing, due to my own filing errors.) This blog covers the time period from April 11, 1990 to January 12, 2012.

Unless I say so, the views expressed here are mine and mine alone. They may be quoted elsewhere, so long as you give attribution. The dates are (at least according my records) the dates of publication in one of the above print newspapers.

The blog archive (web view) is in chronological order. The display of entries, below, seems to be in reverse order, new to old.

All of the mistakes are of course my own responsibility.

Thursday, September 8, 2011

September 8, 2011 - library ready for recession

The story of the library's response to the recession has two dimensions.

The recession began in the private sector in fall of 2008. As jobs disappeared, more and more people used the library. This was true all across the country, and has been well-documented. 

People borrowed what they could no longer afford to buy. They used libraries to sharpen their resumes, look for jobs, apply for jobs online. Sometimes, they came to the library just to find a place where there were other friendly people.

Despite that increased demand, city-based libraries (like Denver Public, Aurora, Englewood) saw immediate loss of revenue. They get their money from the city's general revenue, which tends to have a large component of sales tax money. When people buy less, cities have less money. Because of this, many municipal libraries are in big trouble.

The Douglas County Libraries, as an independent library district, gets most of its money from property taxes.  And property taxes are indexed to an assessment year, typically with an 18 month delay. That is, 2012 tax collections will be based on assessments made in June of last year. (For more information on the process, see www.douglas.co.us/assessor/Property_Assessment_and_Taxes.html.)

Since appraisals happen in odd-numbered years, but are based on the year before, all property tax-based public institutions have a pretty good idea what's coming. So the library knew at the beginning of 2009 that we would see the results of the 2008 recession in 2012. (And not in 2010, since the recession happened after the June appraisals.)

We didn't know exactly what the hit would be. For a while, estimates varied from as low as an 8% drop in revenues next year to as high as 20%. Now they seem to be settling into about a 10% decline.

So we got ready. Douglas County Libraries had already invested in self-check and automated return systems. We set some budget reduction goals. The big one: through attrition, not layoffs, we would reduce our headcount. In fact, we eliminated whole job descriptions. We reorganized around each staff departure, applying various benchmarks to get more and more efficient and productive.

And it worked. As of 2011, we have achieved the staffing levels we had in 2006, without a single layoff. At the same time, our level of business has increased by over 54%. In fact, according the July/August edition of the American Libraries magazine, on the basis of circulation (checkouts) per capita we are the sixth busiest library in the United States.

So that's the first dimension of our story: sound planning and good stewardship. We don't anticipate a funding crisis next year because we used the time to plan for it. Libraries are pretty good at that.

The second dimension is about the jobs themselves. For the past couple of years, we have replaced some vacancies, but almost always with internal people. We've only gone out into the job market for things we didn't have a lot of people qualified to do -- mostly IT positions.

The good news is that this internal focus allowed us to identify a lot of bright and ambitious staff who wanted to move up. We put together and took advantage of a couple of leadership development programs. I have no doubt that we boosted a good dozen people's library careers.

But the bad news is that we have remained pretty closed to the rest of the library world. When jobs do come open, even for the non-professional positions, we get inundated with applications. Many are over-qualified: fine for us, demoralizing for them.

Right now, a lot of fine librarians have completed their master's degrees and can't find work.

It's good to spend time developing one's staff. But at some point, institutions also require an infusion of new blood. Here's hoping the economy turns around soon.


LaRue's Views are his own.

No comments:

Post a Comment