Budgeting for the New Normal: Libraries Respond to COVID-19 Funding Constraints

As COVID-related budget cuts hit libraries, directors and deans must decide what their communities need most.

Illustration by Aad Goudappel

As COVID-related budget cuts hit libraries, directors and deans must decide what their communities need most

When libraries shuttered their spaces in the face of the COVID-19 pandemic, few anticipated that many would only now be moving into phased reopening—with some forced to close again because of a new wave of infections—in a severely weakened economy. A large number of public and academic libraries are also looking at moderate to severe budget contractions.

Some reductions have already come, due to unplanned-for expenses or cities that cut funding across the board. Other libraries are working to prepare for predicted shortfalls, and academic libraries are waiting to see what state and federal funding and enrollment reveal. The $50 million in Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act library and museum funding fell far short of what is needed, and although the $2 billion Library Stabilization Fund Act holds out hope, passage is not assured.

There are as many austerity scenarios as libraries. What they have in common is the need for nimble, thoughtful responses—and a hard look at priorities.



For some, where budgets can be reduced is clear-cut. New York’s Southern Adirondack Library System (SALS), a consortium of 34 public libraries, was given a 20 percent cut to state funding. While the loss will be felt across the system, says Director Sara Dallas, the choice was straightforward.

The most important service SALS provides is its integrated library system and IT support. The second, which Dallas also deems “not touchable,” is courier service. The third, consulting and continuing education, will be cut—“Almost a forced choice,” says Dallas. “It makes it easier and harder at the same time.” Also on hold will be SALS’s Challenge Grants, which allowed member libraries to try innovative services and provided construction funding. She anticipates a similar plan for 2021.

Others face harder choices. When San José, CA, began looking at citywide reductions in the spring, San José Public Library (SJPL) was initially tasked with cutting $5 million from the revenue the library receives from the city’s general fund and $1.5 million from the library’s parcel tax fund. But ultimately the city was able to offer much of that funding back. Cuts will amount to between $1.1 and $1.2 million from the general fund, plus four open hours a week at each location.

Rather than lay off employees, City Librarian Jill Bourne chose to let personnel vacancies—about 28 or 29 FTE, just under 80 part-time roles—remain empty. Bourne has focused on how the library can minimize the impact—“In some locations maybe Monday morning is really quiet, [so] that’s where we take the cut, or in some locations maybe it’s Friday afternoon,” she says. Priorities include hosting learning pods for students who don’t have computer access—city public school buildings will not open until further notice—providing cooling centers and overnight warming locations for homeless patrons, and offering curbside Express Pickup.

The fall may bring deeper cuts, so Bourne is grateful that California’s health orders have prevented early reopenings—closed facilities save money in addition to keeping people safe—even though “it used to be I would do anything not to close.” She stresses that the city budget office has been supportive, including allocating an additional $8.4 million in coronavirus relief funds to SJPL to build out Wi-Fi at branches and community centers and distribute 11,000 hotspots.



In Madison, WI, all city departments were mandated to propose an operating budget reduced by 5 percent, which added up to a $1 million cut for the Madison Public Library (MPL), complicated by the fact that director Greg Mickells intends to eliminate fines.

“We took on the challenge from a very intentional equity focus,” he says. “The proposed budget…[prioritized] the neighborhood libraries that are serving the most underserved populations.” Over 60 percent of the budget goes to personnel; along with leaving 35 vacancies unfilled and rescinding four job offers, he will eliminate about 23 positions—which will reduce hours in some branches and temporarily close the system’s smallest.

The library has always had strong support from the city, Mickells says, but much of its work involves partnerships with other city agencies that are also feeling the crunch. “What we’re discovering is that we’re…counted on more and more from other city agencies to help them connect with the community,” he says. “Our capacity can only go so far.”

SERVICES TO GO Top: Workers at San José Public Library pack Wi-Fi hotspots for citywide distribution; bottom:  a family takes advantage of contactless library holds at Multnomah County Library’s Holgate Library.
Top photo courtesy of San José Public Library; bottom photo courtesy of Multnomah County Library


Since closing all 19 branches of Portland, OR’s Multnomah County Library, “new expenses relating to the crisis have surfaced,” says Director Vailey Oehlke, including shifting in-person services to virtual, instituting a book mailing system, moving programs like summer lunch and computer labs outdoors, and supporting Portland’s largest school district, which will conduct all classes virtually at least through November.

Lexington Public Library, KY, has spent $300,000 to prepare for reopening, including PPE, masks, face shields, hand sanitizer, and Plexiglas barriers. Plus, “we didn’t have the technological infrastructure for people to move easily between working in the office and the library and working from home,” says Executive Director Heather Dieffenbach. The library also purchased new laptops for checkout.



The decision to furlough or lay off staff is one of the most difficult library leaders make. Not only are these employees with whom they’ve worked, but many have irreplaceable relationships with patrons and institutional and community memory.

During the spring and early summer, Multnomah County Library worked with its union to examine where to make staff cuts. After offering early retirement incentives and working to find positions for workers in other city departments, in mid-August the library announced that it would lay off approximately 13 percent of its 600 employees.

The decision was based largely on seniority, as per union process. In answer to workers’ concerns that this would impact Black and Indigenous employees who were hired more recently than older, white staff members, Oehlke pointed to the Knowledge, Skills, and Abilities (KSA) status attached to specific positions, such as those with African American cultural competence as well as language proficiency in Spanish, Chinese, Russian, Vietnamese, and Somali, that automatically protects them from layoffs.

Some staff have noted that most positions held by employees of color do not have KSA status, however. A shop steward, who asked not to be named, told the Oregonian that the union wants the library to institute “shift schedules” so that more people can work and still stay safe, but feels that leadership “seems to not want to do it.” At press time, a petition to the library board to reverse the layoffs had gathered nearly 500 signatures.

Part of the money saved on salaries will go to new programs and services, and Oehlke hopes to shift staff to new positions or eventually bring them back. But “there’s no good decision,” she says. “You’re picking the least lousy decision of innumerable lousy choices.”

When Brookline, MA, instituted cuts across the city, Sara Slymon, director of the Public Library of Brookline, needed to cut close to $400,000 from the budget. There was no room to cut from services. “We’re always operating on a razor-thin thin margin to make sure we have enough copy paper, toner, library cards, and bar codes,” she says. “There just wasn’t any way to do it without taking it from personnel.”

When she crunched the numbers, Slymon found that if part-time workers took temporary furloughs until the end of October, with CARES Act supplementary unemployment insurance through July they would bring in roughly what they would have earned. “Other alternatives would have been to lay half of them off permanently and keep half of them. That would have been a really difficult decision,” she explains, “and one that wasn’t really necessary at that time because we were providing very limited services from home.”

Since then, however, the demand for curbside pickup has exploded, and the remaining staff is short-handed. Slymon reports that 42 employees are putting out about 500 bags of books a day and fielding around 2,000 daily reference calls, chats, and emails from home. She would like to open to the public, but doesn’t feel that she can do so safely with the staff she has now. “We’re eagerly awaiting what state and federal aid might come through,” Slymon says. “If we can get [furloughed staff] in before the end of October, then we should be able to open up sooner.”



Even as stakeholders tighten belts, public libraries are braving elections with ballot measures. This November, Deschutes Public Library, OR, will ask voters to approve a $195 million bond to build a new Central Library, replace one branch, and renovate four.

Director Todd Dunkelberg and the library board briefly considered postponing the measure, but the board ultimately voted unanimously to stay on track. “This county is growing so fast that every other agency in our community is in the same boat,” Dunkelberg explains. “We’re going to have a pile-up of people going out for bonds in the near future if everybody postpones.”

Traditional get-out-the-vote tactics, such as going door-to-door or holding rallies, won’t be feasible. “This is a much different campaign than it would have been,” Dunkelberg acknowledges. Messaging will focus more on social media.

Multnomah County Library, on the other hand, is retooling a $405.5 million bond for November. The original project encompassed a new flagship library, the renovation of seven branches, and other upgrades but “When COVID hit, we felt an obligation to go back and look at that,” says Oehlke. “We ultimately decided to revisit the overall package, which resulted in a…reduction of about $18.5 million in the overall package, as well as some changes.”

One of these involves adding the renovation and expansion of the North Portland Library, which serves part of Portland’s Black community and houses its Black Resource Center. “This moment was the right time,” says Oehlke.    



One stumbling block a number of directors noted was the lack of face-to-face interaction to make their case to stakeholders.

For Maine’s Ellsworth Public Library, lack of town meetings resulted in a trickle-down effect that threatened the library’s funding. The library is a regional center serving more than a dozen towns, but relies on the city of Ellsworth, population 2,000, for 85 percent of its funding. Contributions from surrounding towns are optional, and many have opted out. Frustrated, Ellsworth City Council proposed to cut the library’s funding by $100,000—15 percent of its budget—but restored full funding in July, asking that the library generate additional revenue.

Director Amy Wisehart says those plans have been in motion for the past year in the form of a proposed cardholder fee for residents of towns that don’t contribute. It was originally set to go into effect on July 1, but many towns have not been able to hold meetings to discuss their contributions to the library or present the funding-or-fee option to stakeholders. The card fee is scheduled to go into effect October 1.


THINKING BIG Deschutes Public Library envisions its new flagship branch while gearing up for a November bond ballot.
Photo courtesy of Deschutes Public Library


With the loss of wine tourism and hotel taxes, Walla Walla, WA’s general fund has taken a hit—as has the Walla Walla Public Library. Although the city prioritized avoiding furloughs or layoffs, nonessential library purchasing has come to a standstill. “That’s where our collection budget fell,” says Director of Library Services Erin Wells—to zero from $130,000.

But with delivery in place since May and curbside since June, the community’s demand for books hasn’t abated. People want the latest releases and high-interest titles, which the library has been unable to purchase since March. When they were finally able to meet in July, the library advisory board encouraged Wells to ask patrons for help.

Wells has reached out through social media, letting residents know they can donate directly to the library so funds will go straight to its collections budget, and plans to set up a link on the library’s webpage; an article in the Walla Walla Union-Bulletin helped get the word out. At press time, messaging was still in the early stages, but so far the response has been positive.

“We had a business owner offer to open up one day that she wasn’t planning on and donate the proceeds to the library,” says Wells. “And I had somebody offer to donate a stimulus check.” While community donations are not yet making up the budget shortfall, she says, “every little bit helps.”



For academic libraries, “the main theme is uncertainty,” says Roger Schonfeld, director of Ithaka S+R’s Libraries, Scholarly Communication, and Museums Program. “It’s all contingent on what will enrollment look like, what will happen to state appropriations, and the potential for clawbacks of authorized state budget funding.”

Public colleges and universities stand to feel the austerity first, with states cuts reflecting nationwide drops in tax revenue and increased medical costs. In May, California Governor Gavin Newsome announced $1.7 billion in cuts to higher education. In July, Florida Governor Ron DeSantis vetoed $29.4 million in funding for statewide online learning services, including the Florida Academic Library Services Cooperative (FALSC), which provides online journal subscriptions, ebooks, and other resources; and FALSC’s free Open Florida, which offers training and support for institutions to switch to open educational resources.

Nevada, which relies on revenue from tourism, conventions, and gaming, has been the state hit hardest by the pandemic’s economic fallout. Unemployment is at 15 percent, and all state institutions have been impacted, with the University of Nevada–Las Vegas (UNLV) anticipating a $95.5 million reduction in state support for FY21. The UNLV libraries plan to make up their $15 million cut through reserve funds and CARES money.   

“Our concern is that those are one-time funds,” says Dean of University Libraries Maggie Farrell. “While FY21 is causing strain on our budget, it’s FY22 and 23 that we are beginning to look at,” as deeper cuts could be forthcoming.

Farrell created a library response team of library leadership and departments including human resources, budgeting, and facilities. The team is currently looking at all aspects of the budget, including existing employees and work-study students, and how to strategize spending on materials. Private funding will also be essential.

Collections are not likely to receive an inflationary adjustment, and will likely be reduced, “so we are conducting a collections review this fall to look at our 2021 and 2022 subscriptions,” explains Farrell. “We are working with publishers and vendors to try to hold our journal and database subscriptions to a flat amount.”



The University of Arkansas (UA) was given a 12 percent cut in FY21 state appropriations for libraries—about 4 percent of the library’s budget, says Dean of University Libraries Dennis Clark. So far, he says, the libraries have been able to manage through one-time cuts and avoid layoffs, but collections will bear the brunt.

At the end of the last academic year, UA libraries held off on new purchases and instead paid subscriptions ahead of time, “so FY21 collections money became more flexible,” says Clark. The libraries will also see where private funding can be allocated—“to spread out the pain for as many years as possible, so the acute nature of the cut isn’t felt by any one particular department or collections area.” Negotiations with larger publishers will also come into play, he adds, although he is not looking to unbundle any big deals. Half of the main library is closed for renovations, so the library will hire fewer student and hourly workers, leaving money that can be used elsewhere.

The University of Cincinnati is looking at cutting eight percent of the library’s budget and will avoid furloughs by leaving unfilled positions vacant. “The real tough decision is going to come…next fiscal year,” says Vice Provost of Digital Scholarship, Dean and University Librarian Xuemao Wang. “We…significantly reduced our savings this year. Next year we won’t have enough to react to any bigger reduction.”

Wang and a team of library faculty, staff, and senior management are working through scenarios—planning for a continued decline in state support as well as uncertain enrollment numbers and decreased auxiliary revenue from college sports and student room and board. While they will be looking at areas to cut from, Wang cautions, “we don’t want survival strategy at the expense of our future. We want to plan for coming back stronger.”



When the Washington, DC, budget was approved in August, the DC Public Library (DCPL) budget remained largely intact, says Executive Director Richard Reyes-Gavilan. DCPL won’t be forced to cut personnel, hours, collections, or services this year. The future is unsure, however. City revenue projections anticipate a $700 million shortfall for FY21, and that number is expected to rise.

However, “pandemic-related restrictions on service may make the financial cut less impactful,” Reyes-Gavilan explains. As branches reopen, open hours will be reduced for cleaning and so staff can work at least part-time from home.

Reyes-Gavilan believes the library will be able to avoid furloughs or layoffs for now. Having vacancies is a cushion, he says—“salary savings from positions that have not been filled that protect the staff already with you.” Space constraints for staff and patron safety mean that DCPL may not reopen some of its smaller locations for a while—another possible source of savings.

Notes Reyes-Gavilan, “Right now we’re not looking to do any scenario planning based on budget. We’re trying to…figure out how we can deliver as many services as possible in this phase of the pandemic, and then worry about the budget’s impact on services when the budget is the primary driver.”

At UA, Dennis Clark agrees. “We can plan all day,” he says, “but once we actually are trying to respond on a moment-by-moment basis…we’re all going to be changing.” 

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Lisa Peet


Lisa Peet is Executive Editor for Library Journal.

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