Essential DIY Tips for Surviving Slashed Library Budgets
Kristen Arnett Finds (Figurative) Gems in the Trash
Library budgets! They’re the worst.
Thanks to dwindling funds and a loss of grants, libraries have lost tons of staff, databases, access to updated technology, and money for maintaining collections. We’ve had to go super knock-off with the cookie selection at programming and trust me, patrons have noticed and complained. Library staff are forever trying to figure out ways to recycle and reuse. When we do it right, it feels like a loaves and fishes-type miracle—people leave the library with a sense that they’ve gotten what they need and we experience the joy of performing the same magic trick all over again the next day.
It’s a constant struggle to conjure something out of nothing. A leftover paper towel roll becomes part of a craft kit. Someone’s donated patio furniture turns into seating for programming and computers manufactured in the year of our lord 1995 get put into the public internet access terminal. Contents of a library shredder are repurposed as filling for a raggedy, ancient puppet. Tissue paper gets wadded up and stuffed in a coffee pot in lieu of missing coffee filters. Okay, that one’s just me, I was desperate (please don’t do this; the coffee tasted like WD-40 and I likely shaved years off my life ingesting poisonous chemicals).
What I’m saying is that being a librarian means knowing exactly how far you can stretch a dollar, then making it go just a little bit further because you’ve got a program coming up and the only way you can get patrons to show is if you promise snacks and/or free plastic bookmarks with seashells printed on them.
Children’s librarians are experts in this type of recycling. They’re used to racooning garbage into 6-act puppet shows that they’ll film with a 20-year-old camcorder someone donated for a tax refund. They know where to order prizes for summer reading programs; catalogs that feature bulk plastic toys that wind up left on someone’s floor so a parent can step on them in the middle of the night and curse our names. I once saw a youth services librarian set out a basket of free sand dollars next to checkout for the patrons. A nice way to gift the community, that librarian said, excited we finally had something cool as a giveaway. An elderly gentleman bit into one of them because he thought it was a breath mint. So those leftover sand dollars were taken from the desk to avoid potential lawsuits and glued to a promotional poster advertising a poorly-attended program. Less than 24-hours later, the sand dollars got yanked off the poster by kids hanging out in the lobby and thrown at each other. Then a bunch of people stomped them to bits and I used a secondhand vacuum to sweep up the pieces! The library circle of life continues.
“What I’m saying is that being a librarian means knowing exactly how far you can stretch a dollar, then making it go just a little bit further.”
I can’t tell you how many times I’ve gone through a donation bin and seen pristine $30 hardcovers tossed in like trash; books bought at an airport and then stuffed inside a suitcase after an overpriced vodka tonic and a nap sounds better than reading. I don’t get mad about those donations, I get excited. Free books! DIY collection development! Every year there’s less money for maintaining collections. That means fewer new materials, but it also means a harder time providing upkeep of ones that get regular use. Why does this movie skip, someone asks as they hand back a DVD that looks like it’s been used as a coaster. How come this book is all sticky, someone wonders as they hand over a paperback that’s definitely been used as a plate for a PB&J. We clean things, we try to fix them, and we pray the repairs last longer than a day because we’re already busy trying to fix the 1,000-year-old copy machine that keeps eating people’s quarters.
In library school you learn about collection development, running interminable shifts on the reference desk, and the mind-boggling aspects of cataloging. You take classes on how to engage with young adults [insert hello_fellowkids.gif HERE] and how to direct your future library staff. Your textbooks go over copyright issues and social media management (i.e. how to run a Facebook page that no one will visit); you learn how to create podcasts, maintain databases, and promote book clubs for people who absolutely will not read the book. You talk about “the digital divide” and then argue with persnickety donors about why it’s necessary to have free and open access to the internet. Something you don’t learn in library school: how to make a largescale sign out of 12 sheets of paper because you don’t have enough money left in the budget to buy poster board. You work 40-plus hours a week and you definitely take that shit home with you. Librarianship isn’t something you do for a paycheck—oftentimes, your money is going right back into the library. It goes into programming. It goes into your community. We do this because we love it. Because it is necessary, important work.
Libraries are free spaces. They’re a place for everyone to enjoy very cool programming, books, internet, and one-on-one time with library staff. A crippled budget means more time spent scouting values, deals, recyclables, and applying for grants. It means hours on the internet engaging with other librarians and trading tips and tricks for how to keep the SS Librarianship afloat. We’re gonna get wildly creative when it comes to picking through our garbage and we’re gonna ask for yours, too. It definitely means we’re gonna beg for donations and volunteers. When you walk into a library, you are experiencing a collective effort not only from the staff, but from the library community. When one library is successful, we all prosper. And that is enough to keep me working on the weekends even though I’d rather be sleeping.