Leading a Library Today
How Library Directors Are Approaching the Challenges of the Current Moment
Over the past two weeks, Ithaka S+R has organized five roundtables for academic library leaders to help support their leadership during this time of disruption and uncertainty. In total, 40 library directors and two associate university librarians attended these sessions, representing every four-year institutional type. Participants introduced themselves by describing what has been working well for their libraries, the challenges they are facing, and their budgetary expectations. The discussion that followed–with minimum facilitation–then focused on the participants’ most pressing questions and issues. To enable participants to feel comfortable speaking freely, the sessions adopted the Chatham House Rule. Here, we attempt to summarize what we learned from these discussions.
Management and Staff Support
In each roundtable, participants reflected extensively on the importance of employee well being, and the steps they have taken to ensure that their staff are supported.
Physical health. Directors described the scramble to close their physical facilities to protect employee’s physical health. In cases where that decision was out of their hands, several explained their efforts to drastically decrease both the hours that buildings were open and the number of patrons in the building, while allowing vulnerable staff to work from home.
Emotional health. Directors described a number of tactics that focus on the mental well being of their staff. This includes setting up regular check-ins between staff and managers, holding weekly all staff meetings, offering drop-in office hours, and creating informal virtual social opportunities.
Technology. Directors were very aware that not all of their staff had equal access to technology and took steps to mitigate this–ordering new equipment, stripping computer labs to provide laptops to those in need, and provisioning connectivity for those who had previously lacked it.
Protecting jobs and compensation. Not all library staff positions translate well into working from home. In these cases, directors have focused on finding new projects so that all staff have meaningful work. For many directors, keeping their student workers engaged and employed has also been a priority. Some of these staff are now transcribing or tagging digital collections, and in some cases, single staff members are going into the library to scan course reserves and special collections
Professional development. Directors are impressed that a number of staff are pursuing professional development opportunities to learn new skills. This is happening organically as staff have time, possibly in some cases as a way to protect jobs, rather than at the behest of the directors.
Despite these positive steps, directors were also frank in discussing the social isolation some of their staff are feeling, and the reality that for some staff, “their passion” is working with faculty and students and the material collection, something hard to replicate now. And, it’s simply hard to manage in these times. As one noted, “staff want certainty, and I can’t give that.”
For some, the furloughs and layoffs have already begun. In at least some cases, librarians with faculty status are protected from furloughs and are harder to lay off, so cutbacks will necessarily be concentrated among other library employees. This will likely concentrate cutbacks among economically disadvantaged employees, and it is causing a concern about internal inequities and resulting long-term morale problems. One participant noted that cutbacks in materials processing and non-librarian positions will likely hit employees of color especially hard at their institution.
For many, hiring is now on hold indefinitely, and key positions vacated earlier in the year will not be filled. This will have an impact on strategic priorities, like building data services, and several directors reported challenges due to vacancies in e-resources management. It remains to be seen if efforts to re-allocate staff capacity and foster professional development can adequately ameliorate these staffing pressures.
Academic libraries have developed digital collections and provided digital infrastructure for years, making them among the most digitally enabled elements of the academic enterprise. Because of their digital collections and virtual services, they were comparatively prepared for this spring’s disruptions to residential education. Participants reflected extensively on the value of the services their library is providing in this period of disruption.
Embedded librarians. A number of directors noted that while liaisons have had the ability to embed resources in their institutional learning management systems for some time, they are now jumping in: creating library roles in specific classes, building out quizzes for students, and providing e-resources at the point of need. As one director said, “we need to be where our students are, and our students are in Canvas.”
Instruction. Many directors see that their staff are providing vital support to faculty by taking some of the burden of creating online content for students. Librarians are teaching sessions and helping faculty find the resources they need to be effective. At one library, special collections staff are offering virtual tours, showcasing the material collection. Some directors also reported that their staff are using their instructional design skills to help faculty develop their courses.
Promoting e-resources. While part of the conversation revolved around the availability of new resources that publishers and vendors are offering during the pandemic, and how to make those available without raising expectations that the library will continue to license them, many directors expressed that their existing e-resources are being used more than ever. One director noted that they’re using this time as an opportunity to promote long-standing resources. Hathi Trust members have been able to make wide swaths of their print collections available. Some of the available resources are coming as a surprise to patrons: “students are amazed at what’s available.”
Book delivery/ILL. In a minority of cases, the print collection is still being made available, sometimes through a lone staff member mailing books or a skeleton crew gathering books for faculty to pick up. A larger share are offering electronic interlibrary loan services.
IRs and OERs. One director expressed that the benefits of OERs are “sinking in finally”–faculty recognize that the cost of textbooks are prohibitive and with the physical library closed, students no longer have access to textbooks through course reserves. Institutional repositories are also getting a boost. One library, instead of cancelling student research awards altogether, promoted the work virtually through their IR.
There was also some reflection about how the focus on the services that can be delivered digitally is paying dividends for students who were always online or based at regional centers. Library directors were less sure about their ability to provide the type of engagement and community that the library’s physical space promoted. In many libraries, the building also holds additional services, such as digital media labs, computer labs, and tutoring services, and directors see the value in co-locating services. It is proving to be a challenge to reproduce that virtually.
A substantial share of every library’s expenditures is in employee compensation and benefits, and these expenses recur. As a result, it is little surprise to see early scrutiny of personnel expenditures. Some of the steps being taken are focused only on near-term expense reduction, since longer-term planning is generally not available:
Hiring freezes. Most institutions have implemented some kind of hiring freeze. At some institutions, this has required the suspension even of searches that are in a fairly advanced stage, where they were just at the point of being prepared to extend an offer. While some directors are confident that they may still be able to make the case to move forward with some hires, others believe that it will be quite some time before they are able to fill vacant positions.
Furloughs. Despite their efforts to ensure that all staff can work remotely, a number of library directors have had to follow institutional directives to furlough employees. Furloughs are seen as a more humane alternative to layoffs when the institution allows employees to keep key benefits such as health insurance.
Layoffs. Some directors were not able to furlough staff and had to move directly to layoffs. This wasn’t yet a common experience for the directors we spoke to, but many fear this is coming. Where furloughs and layoffs are taking place, such cuts seem to focus on employees with responsibility for tangible materials processing and circulation.
A number of directors shared that they have been instructed to not make any “unnecessary” expenditures. Considering that many are still feeling the impact of the 2008 recession, they feel they are already good stewards of their budgets and have been doing “more with less” for the last decade. None of the directors being asked to curb unnecessary expenses reported having ceased spending on collections.
Budget for FY2021 and Beyond
Almost all leaders expect cutbacks in the new fiscal year beginning this summer. But there is far more uncertainty about what to expect than is typically the case this late in the spring. That will likely cause the need for continual readjustments and necessitate a different kind of planning than is typical for library leaders.
Because most four-year institutions in the United States rely on tuition for a substantial share of the budget, and because the nature of the upcoming academic year remains so uncertain, there is very little budgetary certainty at the institutional level. As a result, the typical approaches that colleges and universities have taken to budgeting are not working as they typically have done.
Some library leaders are clearly looped in to organizational decision-making and have a window into what to expect. They are well aware that enrollment is already predicted to decline and that their campuses are expecting up to 20 percent fewer students in the fall. They are sitting in on budget meetings that describe all the ways that the institution is losing revenue and are serving on pandemic response committees. But not all directors–echoing what we heard in our most recent survey of library directors–have this degree of access to institutional decision making.
In some cases, the budget office is releasing a set of scenarios and asking units, including the library, to develop a set of plans against each scenario. In other cases, there is little communication with the library about expectations for the coming year.
Regardless, almost every roundtable participant expects to face cutbacks–of five, 10, 20 percent–in the upcoming fiscal year. Only one participant voiced hope that they might be spared this kind of reduction.
We spoke with some directors who already are operating with a skeletal staff and therefore expect additional staffing cuts to be devastating. Many expect they will need to cut print expenditures even more, and they are not sure how they will cover any inflationary increases to their electronic resources.
Most directors are focused on uncertainty, health and safety, and the current and potential budget cuts they will have to manage. As these concerns are uppermost, fewer are yet in a position to consider how their institutions can innovate and add value for the emerging reality. That said, they are beginning to plan for the future.
Some directors expect to have to move to a far more nimble planning and budgeting approach than the longer term cycle (in one case described as a three-year cycle) that had been familiar. They need clarity on the planning expectations of their institutions in order to be able to do so.
Several directors expect that the current situation will provide an opportunity for moving forward with the strategic directions they had always planned or at least hoped to pursue. This often seemed to reflect some degree of focus on moving the library beyond staffing and structures focused on tangible collections and increasingly towards a more digital and service-minded enterprise. Several directors emphasized that they expected, in light of the present disruptions, that such a strategy would become possible because there was really no other option. Others see the speed of existing changes accelerating.
A few directors mentioned their workforce assessment, sometimes conducted formally, that led them to believe that their library was overinvested in terms of staffing in some areas and underinvested in others. They hoped to be able to focus cuts in areas where they are overstaffed so as not to further disrupt some future-looking areas where they felt understaffed. Directors whose libraries had already substantially reorganized their materials processing and circulation functions were concerned that there is really nothing left to cut.