Skip to main content

The Challenge of the Depression

The Challenge of the Depression

by Julia Wright Merrill

Executive Assistant, Library Extension Board

Must the Library Budget Be Cut?

“RETRENCHMENT is in order,” some library trustees are reported to have said, both in relation to current expenditures from a normal budget and in connection with the request budget for the coming year. Do these trustees and the public officials know of the heavy increase in reading-room use and book circulation that is universally reported due to enforced leisure and reduction of personal expenditures for commercial recreation? The work of the library, unlike that of many business organizations, grows rather than diminishes in times of depression. Do not trustees have a responsibility for wise spending of the funds available and for an effort to secure an adequate appropriation for the coming year?

Budget cuts are by no means universal. A strong statement made by a library trustee of Newton, Kansas, to the city council resulted in an actual increase of the library appropriation this year, in order that the program he presented might be carried out. A recent tax hearing in Gary resolved itself into an appreciation of the library, with warm statements of its value made by public officials. Among the state library extension agencies, sixteen reported their appropriations increased at sessions last winter, while six held their own though many other departments were cut.

State library extension agencies are helping local libraries present their case. The Illinois State Library Extension Division, for example, sent the resolution of the A.L.A. Council to all mayors of communities which had public libraries and to presidents and secretaries of library boards. Some mayors were quick to reply that they were interested in their libraries and that they should receive their full share of tax support.

The resolution referred to, adopted by the Council of the A.L.A. at the New Haven conference last June, is reprinted here for the benefit of those trustees who have not seen it.

The present economic depression with its accompanying unemployment has stimulated the demand for library service, increased the circulation of books, and enlarged the contribution which libraries make in the preparation for new types of employment, in the profitable use of leisure time, and in the maintenance of public morale. We call these facts to the attention of the governors and legislatures of various states and to all public officials of counties, cities, and towns and urge them to allow no reduction of appropriation for books and service, but to maintain the libraries of the country in their full efficiency in this period of special need.

A ringing statement, on the cover of the Toledo Public Library’s report for 1930, could be adapted by other libraries. Though this library suffered from reduced tax collections in “the city the automobile ran over,” its case was well presented.

Hard times bring a re-evaluation of institutions supported by taxes. The public has a right to expect its money’s worth in accomplishment. Why the public library deserves adequate support at this time is a proper question and one which we wish to answer.

As pointed out in this report, its load of work increases suddenly and greatly in times of depression.

It serves and serves alike all classes of people, regardless of color, creed, nationality, age, or position.

It provides the adult with a place of learning such as does no other organization, and is prepared to assist him as he meets difficult and practical problems.

The library’s influence is positive and constructive. Knowledge tends to strengthen all who possess it. Good roads, public buildings, compulsory employment insurance, and other public supported measures are fine. They cannot, however, take the place of or create a better prepared and more enlightened citizenship. Support of the public library is an investment in men, not materials, and offers the opportunity for more than temporary relief.

The library’s levy has, indeed, never been large. The present rate of .5 mill yields almost exactly a dollar per capita, which is considered a minimum amount on which to give good service. A reduction in income necessarily cuts seriously the quality and quantity of service.

The ill effects due to lack of funds are not easily remedied even with increased funds at a later date. To develop good and efficient book collections requires time and continuous buying. A trained and effective personnel are the result of time and uninterrupted development.

The need for books today cannot be satisfied with money five or ten years hence. Men and women can wait but little longer for mental food than for physical food. Today’s opportunity must be met now or permanently denied.

When a Cut Becomes Necessary

Many libraries, especially in highly industrialized cities, are, however, already facing the winter with income seriously reduced either from a cut in appropriation or because of reduced tax collections. How are they to give increased service on a smaller budget? Where are cuts to be made?

At first it seems like being asked to make bricks without straw. Library incomes have never permitted extravagant expenditures. The necessity for reduction challenges the administrative ability of librarians. Every corner must be cut, every extra process eliminated. Essentials must be safeguarded, but extension programs can wait.

How adjustments were made in Detroit was told in Library Service for March-May, 1931. Discussion at a series of staff conferences made for staff good will as well as for breadth of viewpoint. The final decision was based on the greatest good to the largest number. Among the aims for the year were: renewing acquaintance with books on hand, personal attention and individual competency on the part of the staff, and an atmosphere of cheerfulness and sympathetic alertness.

The program adapted by the Lima Public Library (42,000 population), for a period of financial uncertainty, is suggestive to other libraries:

Hold up all book orders until September. when library income for remainder of year can be definitely determined. Cancel shorts.

If necessary in September reduce or cut off entirely all book buying until January, or

Order limited non-fiction and place all adult fiction on rental basis, or purchase one copy of fiction for free circulation, and place added copies in rental collection.

Approve necessary binding of books and magazines to preserve investments already made. Hold binding of newspapers.

Make a charge of two cents for each postal used in the reserve of non-fiction.

Reduce all purchases of supplies to a minimum.

Add no new equipment.

Arrest extension program until funds permit.

Fill no vacancies which may occur on the staff.

Shorter or Longer Hours of Opening?

“Cut where the public will feel it most” is often the best way, in time of prosperity, to handle a reduced budget. But can such a policy be carried over into a time of depression? Can an increased circulation be managed in shorter hours? Even if it could, is it wise to reduce library service at a time u hen men and women, out of work, so sorely need it? The individual community must, of course, be considered. Pasadena, California, can close on Saturday afternoon and evening without causing hardship. But in a manufacturing city shorter hours would be a calamity, and the desirability of longer hours might well be one argument for an increased budget.

Shall Staff or Salaries be Cut?

In the factory, the number of men is first reduced, then wages are cut. The business man on the library board often suggests a similar policy in the library. But a professional staff presents a different problem. Building a library staff and creating a staff morale require time and administrative ability on the part of the librarian. Once built, it ought not to be broken down for a temporary emergency. Library salaries are low as compared with other professions, and salary cuts are the less possible.

Instead of radical cuts in staff, libraries are reducing their total payroll in such ways as: discontinuing training classes temporarily (as in Chicago, Cincinnati, and Toledo), leaving vacancies unfilled, omitting regular increases of salaries, encouraging or enforcing leaves of absence without pay, and arranging for spread or staggered work.

The governor or city council may, however, order a 10 per cent cut in the salaries of all public employees, as in North Carolina and Birmingham. The library board then has no option, and the librarian must seek consolation, as suggested in the Survey, in the thought of reasonably sure tenure of office:

Many a librarian in boom days envied the woman advertiser who could afford taxicabs and a squirrel coat. But now the librarian, secure in her job, hears tales of woe from friends who once considered her occupation ill rewarded. (“How Professional Women Fare,” by Vera Kelsey, Survey, November 15, 1931, vol. 67, p. 19.)

When the decision to cut or not to cut salaries rests with the library trustees, they will want to consider the opinion of Fred Telford, director of the Bureau of Public Personnel Administration, that 10 per cent cuts in the salaries of all public employees are as unscientific as corresponding automatic increases.

In the judgment of the staff of the Bureau of Public Personnel Administration, the worst mistake that could be made at this time is to treat all officers and employees alike, either by allowing their salaries and wages to remain stationary or by making uniform cuts, just as in periods of economic prosperity the worst mistake is to treat all officers and employees alike, increasing the pay of the average and inefficient workers in exactly the same proportion as that of the unusually able, hardworking officers and employees. From the point of view of dollars and cents it is a mistake now not to reward with higher pay those, constituting 10 or 15 per cent of the service, whose work is of an unusually high character. From the point of view of social policy it is a mistake probably at any time, and certainly h a period of economic depression, to discharge any officer or employee whose work meets even low standards of performance; but the public service can well be reduced by not bringing in additional employees as positions become vacant. Finally, in periods both of economic prosperity and economic depression, performance on the job must be measured, and different treatment accorded those whose performance is especially good, those whose performance is merely average, and those whose performance is below average. (Public Management for June, 1931, vol. 13, pp. 192 and 199-200.)

Can “Made Work” Be Provided?

Funds collected for unemployment relief have been used in many cities to give “made work” to jobless painters in cleaning or painting city buildings and semi-public ones, such as settlement houses. Large sums have been spent in developing recreation areas. Have other libraries, like the Chicago Public, applied for or secured work on their buildings or grounds?

Clerical help has been used to advantage by the Los Angeles Public Library. Through the Women’s Unemployed Relief Committee, 171 women were assigned to the library in groups for four weeks each, and distributed among various departments and branches. Care was used not to employ these untrained workers in positions which came under civil service requirements, but to furnish them work of a general clerical nature. According to the annual report, “many were the expressions of thanks from library departments for this welcome help in catching up with typing, filing, and odd jobs of routine work, releasing librarians to assist the ever-increasing public.”

Simpler Routine One Solution

Simplified charging systems were discussed at the October meeting of the Pennsylvania Library Association, as practically a necessity because of increased circulation. Libraries large and small are experimenting with various simplifications and machines. St. Louis has abolished renewals, charging all books for twenty-eight days. Order and cataloging routine are being studied. The St. Louis Public Library reports that a “critical scrutiny and study of all methods, processes, and procedures, and the consequent reorganization of some, yielded economies in effort and increased output.” (Annual Report, 1930-31, p. 28.)

The Inevitable Cut in the Book Fund

The most flexible item in the library budget is, of course, the fund for books, periodicals, and binding. Almost universally and inevitably budget cuts are followed by reduction in book buying. Sometimes the book fund is cut by the appropriating body on the ground that prices of books, like those of other commodities, must go down. Librarians, however, know that no reduction has come as yet, or is anticipated soon. (For a statement of reasons for price maintenance, see the editorial in Publishers’ Weekly, August 15, 1931, vol. 120, p. 598.)

How to stretch the book fund is then a crying problem. In Toledo, all fiction bought in 1931, except replacements of books of high standard, was placed on a rental basis. A charge is made for reserving non-fiction in a number of libraries where that has been free, and an increased charge has been made for reserving fiction. The Oregon State Library calls the attention of small libraries to an A.L.A. publication, A guide to inexpensive series, reprinted from the Booklist for August, 1931. Many of the bulletins of the state library extension agencies, as well as the A.L.A. Booklist, are listing free and inexpensive material. Publicity for good older books is being emphasized.

Timely new books on unemployment and related subjects and on the reduction of armaments and world peace are being purchased, in spite of reduced book funds, judging from the lists in library bulletins and in leaflet form that come to A.L.A. Headquarters.

What Other Methods Have Been Tried?

The A.L.A. would be glad to hear of other methods of handling budget cuts and to serve as a clearing house of information. Send word of your experiments to Julia Wright Merrill, American Library Association, 520 North Michigan Avenue, Chicago.

Source: Merrill, Julia Wright, “The Challenge of the Depression,” Bulletin of the American Library Association, Vol. 25, No. 12, p. 703. (December, 1931), New Deal Network, (April 14, 2014).

View graphic versionView graphic version