How To Fight an Austerity Budget and Advocate for Your Library in the Age of COVID-19

It is important for library leaders to realize that every other local organization or unit of government who responded to the COVID disaster with compassion, engagement, and their best efforts also has a great story to tell. During times of austerity, the narratives that matter are about direct and measurable outcomes for people who used your service, visited your program, accessed your collections, or interacted with your staff.

The National Association of State Budget Officers (NASBO) is projecting a 20 percent decline in state tax revenue for FY 2021. In comparison, at the peak of the Great Recession state budgets were off by only 11.6 percent. Projections for municipal tax revenues are likewise grim. This massive multisector decline will have direct and indirect negative effects on funding for state libraries and systems, public libraries, K–12 education, and higher ed. Policymakers, politicians, and library leaders have two interrelated options available to manage the coming crisis: cut spending or raise revenue. It takes courage to raise taxes at any time, and especially during a pandemic. But without new revenue, we slide into austerity.

 

SCARCITY MEANS MEASUREMENTS

Austerity budgets are all about scarcity. Austerity engenders a policy framework where the solution is more cuts rather than new revenue. In an austerity budget, there is not a lot of room to fund the number two or number three most effective agency in town, let alone an institution that lacks evidence for its own impacts. When resources are scarce, different parts of government are forced to fight for their very survival. In times of austerity, advocacy that works is rooted in the measurement of your activities and their impacts, not just stories of how people feel about your library or their librarians.

It is important for library leaders to realize that every other local organization or unit of government who responded to the COVID disaster with compassion, engagement, and their best efforts also has a great story to tell. Your library’s story about rapidly retooling to meet the needs of your patrons, customers, or users is no more or less meritorious than that of the local parks department, school, children’s museum, theater, or music venue. During times of austerity, the narratives that matter are about direct and measurable outcomes for people who used your service, visited your program, accessed your collections, or interacted with your staff.

 

DRIVEN TO DIGITAL

LIbrary as the Third Place in society. These place-based and in-person measures are no longer available. It is critically important that library leaders start to collect robust measures of digital activity to create new advocacy narratives about library impact during COVID and make an accurate case for new or renewed funding.

 

SUCCESS OR FAILURE? BOTH CAN WIN FUNDS

With the right data and comparables, there are two possible advocacy stories to tell within an austerity budget framework. One is a story of your staff’s success in delivering programs and services with impacts—one where impacts are noticeable, measurable, scalable, or replicable. Stories of success demonstrate to funders that your staff and leadership are competent in delivering services and trustworthy with limited resources. Your advocacy narrative must include the frame that your work is either replicable or scalable. During austerity, stories of competency and measures of success are budget justifications that should make your library eligible for funding.

The other advocacy story is one about your failures. You may not have succeeded in realizing your mission, vision, and values during the early stages of the COVID crisis, but you and your team have the integrity and skill to fix it—if provided with enough resources. Stories of failure are hard to tell not only because your funding partner could be disappointed but also because the organizational culture of libraries signals its virtue by doing more with less. Many library leaders see scarcity as an unavoidable condition rather than what it is: an affront to a library’s value system. During austerity, it is very important to root a true story of failure in your mission, vision, and values. Your advocacy narrative must include a frame about how you have measured and identified failures, shortfalls, and gaps and can, with proper funding, fix them.

Even communities that have so far been spared the worst of the health crisis still face the full impact of the economic crisis. Policymakers, elected officials, voters, and philanthropic funders want to see their money go to effective programs and competent staffing in ways that deliver results. They want to support programs and projects that can be measured and justified through data as well as stories. It is mission critical for libraries to show the efforts made in digital, online, and virtual services in order to properly frame a budget narrative. This includes synchronous and asynchronous events, classes, and programs alongside digital downloads and electronic circulations. It should also include a measure of the staff efforts and the reach of your marketing dollars across social media and search. Without a reasonable understanding of the costs, you cannot calculate a return on the community’s investment. Elected officials and voters are looking for the right way to apply limited funding resources to solve problems. With good measures at hand, they will be able to see library worker–delivered results and library-shaped solutions to problems.

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John Chrastka

John Chrastka, a 2014 LJ Mover & Shaker, is Founder and Executive Director of EveryLibrary, a nonprofit organization that advocates for local library ballot initiatives.

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