Is There a Library Consolidation in Your Future? Mergers Aren't Just for Corporations Anymore, and Librarians Must Be Ready for That Inevitable Call for Consolidation

Article excerpt

As Bob Dylan sang, "The times, they are a-changin'."

Very soon, many librarians and other library staff could be working in entirely new organizational structures. The reason can be found in David Osborne and Peter Hutchinson's The Price of Governance: Getting the Results We Need in an Age of Permanent Fiscal Crisis (Basic Books, 2004).

This book was a sequel to the highly influential Reinventing Government: How the Entrepreneurial Spirit Is Transforming the Public Sector by David Osborne and Ted Gaebler (Addison-Wesley, 1992), which sparked the Clinton administration initiative under Al Gore's leadership. The Price of Government argues that, in this "age of permanent fiscal crisis," local budget planners "begin by determining how much taxation the public will bear. Leaders then prioritize specific outcomes and keep piling public works into the shopping cart until they max out the governing authority's line of credit."

A key concept in this book is that leaders need to sever the link between steering and rowing. The groups that do the steering--state and county leaders--should determine and quantify the outcomes they desire. They should then let those in the specific funded agency (i.e., the library) do the rowing. Library officials must row to the best of their ability, always aiming for the predetermined outcomes that are set by the elected officials at the helm.

Ordinarily it is elected officials and their varied constituencies--whose collective eyes are fixed on the bottom line--that call for a reorganization of library services to, as they believe, be more cost effective. In response, librarians and patrons tend to seek the best organizational structures for providing high-quality services. There is, of course, a huge abyss here; cost (tax) efficiency and service effectiveness have always been dueling goals.

I direct a state-funded federation of 16 libraries serving 37 communities in Waukesha County, Wisconsin. We have a service population of 366,000. Because we are considering governance options, including consolidated county library service, I am often asked whether I think consolidation options can work. I reply that, in my professional judgment a consolidated library service can be a very good thing if done well; but if it is done poorly, it is a very bad thing indeed.

If or when library consolidation is proposed in your community, you owe it to yourself as a library professional and to your service population to ensure, to the degree possible, that it is done well. So, let us look at what needs to be done.

No more bucks to pass

Those who are actively considering consolidation of library services are doing so for a variety of reasons, not the least of which is that the more than 30 years of "devolution" of fiscal responsibility for services and funding has nearly run its course. The feds devolved funding responsibility to the states. The states, in their turn, shouldered some of the responsibility but shifted another share onto the shoulders of local government. Then the recession of 2001 hit, and nearly every state faced massive deficits and implemented still further cuts. Further devolution, passing the budget problems down still more to the local layer of government was all too easy for many state legislatures.

With no end to the devolutionary process in sight, local library and elected officials have begun looking at options for wider-unit organization. There are currently at least six geographic areas in the United States where officials are considering the merger or consolidation of library services (see sidebar). Unfortunately, each effort reinvents the wheel because the library profession has failed to develop the research data needed to guide such efforts. Those who spearhead these proposals are usually casting about for efficiencies because they view the multiplicity of municipal, school, and academic libraries in any given geographic area as duplication of effort. …