Daily Archives: December 21, 2010

A “Perfect Storm” Is Battering Libraries


“The Perfect Storm” phrase has become popular to describe a convergence of conditions that cause maximum destruction of whatever. It was popularized after the 1997 book by the same name by Sebastian Junger that described unique weather conditions that combined to create a deadly Nor’easter in October 1991 whose damage totaled $208 million with a confirmed death toll of twelve. Now whenever conditions appear similarly disastrous for something, it is referred to as a “perfect storm”. For example;

  • The Perfect Storm That Could Drown the Economy (NY Times, 2005)

    Poll Finds a ‘Perfect Storm’ of Voter Distrust in Government

    The Perfect Storm – Today’s economy creates favorable conditions for sale-leaseback sellers.

    Transport secretary says sorry after chaos of Scotland’s ‘perfect storm’

    Has the NCAA set the conditions for the Perfect Storm?

    Public Consulting Group Research – How to Avoid the Perfect Storm

    Pension Plan Sponsors Looking for Funding Relief from “Perfect Storm” Conditions

  • IMHO, there are “perfect storm” conditions at the front doors of libraries, threatening to devastate them.

    Technology – Advances in technology are faster than librarians can learn. When they do learn to use the technology, it takes time, talent and funds to apply them to a real world issue regarding library services to 21st Century customers. Technology is a bullet train with no stops that is affecting decisions regarding both services and collections.

    Customers – Changes in customers’ behavior are creating vastly diverse and somewhat unpredictable demands for library services. Technology literacy levels among library customers are vastly different and constantly evolving. Digital Native customers and Digital Fugitive customers are at opposite ends of the customer service spectrum, but both deserve excellent library services.

    Economy – The depressed economy that began two years ago has impacted library funding dramatically. No library system is immune to funding cuts, no matter how excellent the service or community support. Non-existent tax revenues can not fund libraries at the old levels, and trying to improve services and technology is nearly impossible with reduced funds that often are insufficient to even keep the doors open as long as before.

    Relevance – Due to all the other economic and day-to-day issues that also batter individuals, library supporters are disinterested in the survival of their local library. Too often librarians hear that dreaded question – “Why Are Libraries Needed?” Libraries are no longer the sacred cow that is untouchable, but merely another public service agency funded by diminished tax dollars that must fight to have its value to the community recognized.

    Library’s Role – Unfortunately, when external influences impact the librarian profession what usually happens is a procrastinated debate over the age-old issue – “What is the role of the library?” Some contend that the library’s role has never and will never change – providing equal access to uncensored information. Others contend that commercial organizations are far exceeding the library’s ability to fulfill that role, so libraries must adapt and re-invent themselves in order to remain relevant to their community. The uncertainty within the profession fosters no decisions, no actions and no direction, which results in the further devaluing of the library’s role.

    Library Education – Academia is slow to adopt new theories and techniques to incorporate into cutting edge curriculum for the profession. Therefore, librarianship education is well behind where it should be to provide MLS graduates with the latest strategies for implementing technology in library services, thus prolonging the lack of change and evolution within the profession.

    This “perfect storm” of combined external factors contributes to create a disastrous environment for libraries. Libraries are being battered and torn by these factors almost to the point of destruction. If one considers all the branch closings and cut backs in staff, services and hours, and for-profit companies managing public libraries, then the storm damage is severe. A forecast for better conditions is not in the near future.

    The reality is that in order to withstand the “perfect storm” that is attacking libraries, one should have boarded the windows (figuratively, not literally), stocked up on emergency supplies, and definitely learned how to swim.

    In other words, the solution to surviving this storm was in recognizing that it was coming, but very few did. Unfortunately, no early warning system existed (although in hindsight it definitely should). Libraries have to find their safe harbor – their niche in their community – and apply every safety measure they can find (technology, business acumen, innovative librarianship, advocacy, etc.) to weather this “perfect storm”.

    When the storm passes, will your library still be standing, or will it have to be rebuilt? Will your community have the desire and resources to rebuild? Will your community have confidence in you to rebuild, or will they question whether your inability to save the library was part of the problem?

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