We are officially done with the Great Recession, but for many of us the decline that began in 2007 will never end: there were too many lost jobs, foreclosures, ruined finances and gutted retirements to recover from completely.
Library workers were hit by personal impacts of the decline, but the industry was also struck hard by the contraction in local government revenue and the resultant contraction in library budgets. Hiring, which had picked up in the years prior, plummeted; positions emptied by retirement were not filled; staffing was cut to the bone and beyond. Workers were laid off or furloughed. The benefits and growth of that brief spell of "good times" were effectively erased in many systems.
Along with the recession came a war on public employment itself. Aspiring politicians were quick to tar public workers, and especially those in union jobs. Many states passed laws restricting or eliminating collective bargaining by public sector workers. The combination of hard times and attacks by political opportunists hurt the library and its people. The past half-decade will not be recalled as a halcyon period for the institution or the profession.
The public library is like a man who has survived pneumonia but lost a lung in the fight. Every breath reminds her of what's been lost—and there is still the old job to do, including whatever challenges the future may bring. Some of that future is here, and the rest is on the way. We face a Tomorrow replete with E-tools, E-applications, E-objects and functions, many of which will head the demand list of our patrons moments after reaching the marketplace. Some of these will crash down on the library, live out a brief spell of techno-life before obsolescence and be replaced by their own children in a few months. The future motto of the public library will be "Whatever." And if the library fails to add these gimcracks to its inventory, petty savants will declare it obsolete and unworthy of funding.
[Meanwhile we will have to maintain traditional services, including and especially with regard to books. Many people and not a few librarians persist in believing that the library is a place for books—the type made of paper and binding. Until that sort is rounded up and put in camps the book will remain the focus of the library, literally, figuratively and financially, and I'm not betting on its demise any time soon. If you don't believe this, think of the response that occurs when your Internet service goes down. Now imagine patrons arriving to find no books on the shelves. You can find the Internet floating through the ether in a coffee shop, a bar or a hotel lobby. Nobody keeps books like the library—nobody that lends them, anyhow.]
I have seen some remarkable adaptations by public libraries in the face of post-Recession challenges—and I call them "challenges" only because "tragedies" has too grim a sound. The public library is challenged in the same way a man with one leg is challenged to walk. He will only be a cripple if he doesn't try, and the library is trying. Trying with fewer administrators; with fewer librarians: with far less money but no fewer patrons your public library is pulling off a loaves-and-fishes routine every hour the doors are open. You notice gaps and patches. There are places where the term "librarian" means "whoever's at the desk." One may and often will pay dearly for interlibrary loan. Worse than anything, hiring is depressed, which means we are shortchanging the next generation of workers. A job delayed is often a job denied. Even librarians have to eat.
The good news is that we've been here before. The most important thing the library preserves is itself. In my town we think of the Tournament of Roses as the historical soul of the city, but the library is older—older even than the City's incorporation. Even the venerable Central Library is merely the third structure to serve that purpose. The same story is told in thousands of other places.
We will survive as we do survive: because libraries do the right job in the right way. Libraries offer a valuable product for practically nothing to anyone who desires it. Nothing beats that bargain and nobody does it better than the people for whom the work is so very important. With that in mind and in heart we move onward, the fates willing, to better times.