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?

    6 Comments

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    6 responses to “A “Perfect Storm” Is Battering Libraries

    1. Comparing 2009 with 2000 – 10 years – we learn that:
      Utah has grown by about 21%.
      Yet library visits are 241% of what they were in 2000.
      Circulation is 163% of what it was.
      Holdings are 126% of what they were.
      Speaking to relevance books as a percent of holdings are down over 7% but average internet workstations are 278% of what they were 10 years ago.
      Inflation for the same period of time was 22.2% (average 2.2%/year) but operating expenditures are up over 28%.

      I agree that there are huge changes that we’ve lived through and huge changes that we will live through but I’m not willing to doom us quite yet. I do not advocate sitting back and smugly saying, “all is well” but neither do I subscribe to panic mode.

      • Thanks for that ray of hope, but I hate to say I think Utah is an anomaly. Hopefully during the first part of this decade libraries did make some progress, but during the past two years when the “perfect storm” conditions were brewing, progress was nowhere to be seen. Ten years ago Bill & Melinda Gates had not started pouring hundreds of millions of dollars into technology development for public libraries.
        I’m suggesting that the huge changes that are in front of libraries must be met with aggressive action if libraries are to survive beyond another decade. Panic will come when libraries are disappearing daily.

    2. Will

      Hi Steve,
      I am currently writing my Architectural dissertation titled “The Death of the Library” after accidentally discovering that the last published book on Library design, I could find, in my university Library was 2007. This sent me into a frenzy of research and reading and I have found (living in the UK) that there are hundreds of small community libraries being closed under the current Tory government. However, as these libraries close, larger, “evolved” libraries are being built (see the New Birmingham Library, and the Canada Waters Library). As sad as it is, seeing these smaller libraries close down, which were once destinations for community conversation, learning and reading, I can only see that this is an inevitable progression into a digital age.

      It seems that small public communities are accessing their information via the internet and using these smaller public libraries less. As you say, Librarians and libraries need to adapt to the public’s want of digital information, but this of course requires funding. Many in the UK are suggesting higher taxes for the top 10% of higher income earners to help.

      Have you given this topic anymore thought? are you seeing any changes in policy towards public libraries in the US?

      I would be very interested in hearing your current thoughts on the subject.

      Kind regards,

      Will

      • Will,
        Thanks for commenting.
        There are numerous factors that have contributed to the death of the local library, only one of which is the Internet and peoples’ desire to have remote access to information (at least we can assume the Internet came first in this chicken-egg scenario). The other major factors that worked in conjunction were the recession economy and librarianship’s lack of preparation for the digital age. As local funding became tight as a result of the worsening economy, communities instinctively looked at reducing their overhead which always begins with reductions in non-essential services – and naturally the library rose to the surface. Librarianship had for decades been resting on its traditional place in society and not given any consideration to how technology was impacting the profession, or peoples’ interest for information access.

        This current situation is certainly ‘shame on us’ because of the many warning signals of the Internet boom in the 90s, Internet access debates in the late 90s and early 00s, not to mention the internal technology changes with OPACs, etc. Leadership within librarianship has always tended to be more focused on ‘freedom of information’ than on the future of the profession. When the profession should have been seriously considering its relevance to communities and customers, it was still worrying about free and open access and perpetuating its traditional role of information provider – not recognizing the competition.

        We have seen in the U.S. that several communities that have invested their resources in new libraries, and being an architect you no doubt know which ones they are, are seeing an increase in use among their customers. However, whether this is solely tied to the economy and will dwindle as the economy gets better, only time will tell. Whether local communities will recognize some higher value in their local library is yet to be determined. The survival of local libraries is entirely dependent on whether librarians figure out how to provide the services that make the library more relevant to the needs of the community.

        As far as where communities get their funds to support investing in libraries is concerned, that’s a political matter about which I don’t speculate. I try to steer clear of politics and religion discussions.

    3. Janet Castle

      To begin with, the forces re-shaping libraries and the library profession are emerging from the fields of computer science and business management.
      Both fields are dominated by corporations who have very diverse and talented staff members with different educational backgrounds. Also, I hate to push this one to hard, but the fact is the library profession is dominated by
      women who have studied: English literature, sociology or French Literature
      While these are perfectly valid branches of the tree-of-knowledge, this level oof unbalance in any profession is not conducive to survival. Library schools need to change their curriculum and attempt to attract more people with tech-backgrounds to the field. Precluding this however is the fact that most librarian salaries do not provide a decent standard of living. So really talented people avoid the profession entirely. Sorry…the library profession is finished.

      • I’m not sure I would go so far as to say the librarian profession is finished, but it certainly will look different in the near future – or should – if it has any desire to survive.
        However, I do agree that the forces shaping the environment are coming from sectors that were not influences 20 years ago. If they had existed, maybe we would have evolved more by now.
        I can’t speak to the liberal arts educational background of the majority of the librarian profession (and being a guy, it probably wouldn’t be prudent anyway), but I certainly have heard the old saying that people join the profession because they love books and love reading. Not only a different SLIS curriculum, but a different image of the profession needs to evolve to allow the profession to evolve.
        Thanks for your comment.

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