Cassandra Needs a Coat

By Robert Drake

Winter is coming.

In some faraway lands that means creepy ice zombies, but in this world it means an economic recession, and a recession is definitely coming.  To clarify, I’m not some prescient economist predicting some specific doom at some fore-noted date, but rather I’m working under the generalized assumption that we are always either in a recession or moving inexorably toward the next one. 

If we accept that premise, then I pose the following question:  Are we prepared?

Some institutions are, and others are not – non-answers are always correct – but I want to explore this a little further.  What does prepared mean?  We are we preparing for, or against?

Without going too far into the weeds, I would say a recession forces tax-supported services to both define and defend their value more exactingly than they might otherwise have to.   This is not necessarily any different than in favorable economic climates, but the competition is perhaps fiercer and the stakes inevitably higher.

My concern in this regard is three-fold.  Firstly, the “great recession” officially ended in June 2009 and in the nine years since, physical circulation at most libraries I’ve reviewed is 20-40% less.  The number of circ active patrons (discussed in my column four months ago) is similar. 

Secondly, as noted in OCLC’s 2018 From Awareness to Funding Report, fewer patrons associate libraries with their core values.  Not only do fewer people consider libraries a valuable resource for children, but library materials are valued less, they are less enthusiastic about library staff, and overall perceived relevance has declined precipitously since this survey was last undertaken in 2008. My extrapolation of this is that the cultural currency libraries have developed over many decades – that sense of civic value even non-users intuitively comprehend – has eroded significantly and is still doing so. 

My third concern, not necessarily as data driven, is that our efforts to combat these shifts in usage and perception have often been successful in localized instances (I.E we have some very successful libraries) but have neither the scope nor consistency to really change the conversation at a cultural level. 

To those ends, I do not think it’s too far afield to argue that a ‘governance’ structure that consists of 750 something public libraries, of four different legal types and arrangements, supported by 23 public library systems, themselves of three different types, all governed by 5-15 or more board members is not particularly well-positioned to drive a conversation about value in a world drowning with noise.  Political security by intractable complexity has a certain elegance to it, but I’m not sure it lasts forever, and the sheer amount of effort and communicative resonance lost to this “process” is staggering. 

And it shows.

The Path Through History, Taste NY, and I <3 NY highway signs might run afoul of federal signage guidelines, but nevertheless represent consistent state-wide marketing efforts that do not really include libraries.  I can’t say specifically whether they have been effective, but if we hypothetically wanted to be included, who would make that request?  What entity would coordinate implementation?  How would we decide if we wanted to be a partner and under what circumstances would we effectively do so?  In effect, how would we create, manage, or evaluate any genuinely expansive marketing initiative if we ever (who?) decided we should do so?

Ditto our technology.  We use brazenly under-featured Integrated Library Systems because any market power is forfeited when a given contract might top out at a few hundred thousand dollars (not exactly large in the tech world) and any development requests are as scattered as the materials represented.  For a web presence, 190 state parks in New York with varied hours, services, and amenities all use the same website.  How much time, money, and effort has gone into creating and managing eight hundred library websites where nearly all the usage is hours, address, and local services, when those same things are consistently found on just one for any park in the state?  I wouldn’t necessarily say that independent websites are a concern, but there is an undeniable cost that has obvious alternatives.    

Similar points might be made in regards to materials purchasing, reporting, and cataloging.  Perfect is not a realistic organizational standard but explaining why it’s necessary for twenty plus distinct MARC records to either be copied, created, or purchased for every new popular item, or why a few hundred variations of the same circulation report needed to be independently assembled for seven hundred boards, or why every library (usually) purchases bestsellers individually that literally everyone wants is not a conversation I’d enjoy having.

And yes, I am fully cognizant that things are this way because libraries are locally funded/governed, and systems have their own chartered regions and that provides a convenient historical answer, but I personally think it does very little to satisfy the original question.  When resources become tighter – and they will – are we prepared?                 

My concern here is that our biggest collective weakness is not funding, but instead lies with our bizarre hodgepodge of library classifications, numerically adventurous governance, and inability to remove the inefficiencies that would allow us to better prepare us for the conversations to come.  Individual communities will, of course, respond favorably to the great work being done by their local library, but that great work is facilitated by a complex overlay of infrastructure, resources, and governance that will have to define and defend itself like anything else.  I am admittedly pre-disposed toward doomsaying, but I find our ecosystem increasingly drafty and surely, I’m not the only one finds the world a little colder every day.


Robert Drake is the Assistant Director for Technology Operations at the Nassau Library System.  He argues with himself in the mirror each morning and then makes the losing side his published opinion.  The views and positions here expressed are his alone, and do not necessarily reflect those of NLS, Robert Drake himself, or probably anyone...