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On the brink: librarianship in an age of possibility – Instalment 21

What we're here for

It's inescapable: news of the library world has been abuzz with story after story on libraries' role during the ongoing economic downturn. If you read enough of this stuff, though, it tends to create a bit of cognitive dissonance: libraries, especially public libraries, are that one odd institution where our revenue (funding) tends to go down, right as demand for our services goes up.

So, for instance, we have "Seattle libraries to shut down for a week" ( right next to "Public libraries: enablers of Americans' dreams" (, and we have "Save LA libraries!" ( hand-in-hand with "Libraries as lifelines for economic recovery" (…).

In light of this, we need to take a hard look at the way we do things and how we can remain viable in the face of both these ongoing economic pressures and technological change.

What can we stop doing?

Instead of perpetually finding ways to do more with less, sometimes we need to take a step back and revisit what we're actually doing. In the face of increased demand for our services, combined with fewer staff and fewer resources, we can't go on with "this is the way we've always done it" – because each thing we continue doing equates to a very real opportunity cost. Spending the time and resources to do one thing means that we no longer have those time and resources available to do something else.

Doing more with less requires us to take stock and to prioritize. Existing programmes, services, and projects need to justify their continued existence in a changing world, otherwise we find ourselves ever increasingly weighed down by the decisions of past administrations and librarians. There's a limit to what any library can offer, and in tough economic times we need to make the tough choices.

So how do you make these choices?

  • Ask your staff
    Those on the front lines are those who truly know what's being used and what's being asked for.
  • Look at what other institutions are doing
    Have neighbouring libraries shuttered a programme, stopped a service? How has it worked out for them?
  • Know your numbers
    Look at your statistics: who is attending programmes? What types of items are really circulating? How many?
  • Put everything on the table
    Identify the sacred cows in your institution, and take a good hard look at the reasons behind the assumption of their specialness.
  • Identify ways to merge the old into the new
    If you have demand for a new programme, can you tweak or add onto an old programme?

Be sure also to market these changes as an opportunity to do something new, rather than a loss of something special.

What can you stop doing?

Beyond what your library can stop doing, think about what you can personally stop doing. As librarians, we like to say yes: that's our job, that's our training, and that's our natural inclination. "Yes, I can find that for you"; "Yes, I'm happy to volunteer"; "Yes, I'll take on that project/be part of your team/join this committee".

Saying yes is good: it keeps us professionally active and connected. Saying yes indiscriminately, though, can lead to a lack of focus and eventually to burning out on the profession itself. Saying yes to everything that sounds interesting doesn't allow you to give your best to any one project. And saying yes when the time has come to move on to something new keeps us from moving forward in our careers.

So while you think about what your library can stop doing, think also about what you can stop doing. What have you said yes to that no longer feeds you personally or professionally? What projects demand too much of your time and energy to continue? Might someone else be able to continue them just as well? Those of us who are perpetually busy also tend to view ourselves as irreplaceable, forgetting that our institutions survived quite nicely before our time and will continue to go on after we leave.

So how do you make these choices?
  • Ask yourself the tough questions
    Do your work and your extracurricular commitments feed you personally and professionally, or are you doing things because you feel you "have" to?
  • Look at what your fellow librarians are doing
    Has a colleague turned down projects, given up commitments? Embolden yourself through their example.
  • Know your return on investment
    Some projects will be more personally and professionally rewarding than others. Prioritize your commitments and know where your resources (your time, your energy) are going.
  • Put everything on the table
    Sometimes we continue with projects that no longer energize us because we feel beholden to a colleague or aren't sure how to say no. Take a hard look at why you're continuing.
  • Identify ways to merge old projects into new commitments
    How can you tweak what you're doing or re-use pieces in different ways?

Recognize that your time and energy are precious, and focus on what giving up some existing commitments will allow you to accomplish.

Rachel Singer Gordon is webmaster,, author of What's the Alternative? Career Options for Librarians and Info Pros, and blogs at The Liminal Librarian (