Tag Archives: Obstacles

Of Budgets and Brio: Must Bigger Be Better?

6 Dec

I was discussing this assignment with a friend the other day who, out of curiosity, had taken a look at what I’d written so far. He agreed with many of the conclusions I’d come to, but wondered if it was merely a coincidence, or evidence of something more serious, that my reviews, so far, have tended to favour the libraries of big cities, with presumably much bigger budgets.

Looking through my previous posts, this does seem to be somewhat of a pattern- although there are exceptions already, and with so few posts to work with, such a conclusion is hardly scientific. I could try to disprove it by showcasing libraries in small towns that are great successes in the Library-Two-Point-Whoa arena (and there are certainly many), or examples of failures in big-budget, urban libraries (of which there are fewer). But time is of the essence here, and besides, I’m not sure that that kind of argument would be any more systematic than the one we’re dealing with already. Though it would perhaps be easier just to say that such sweeping and serious generalisations can’t be extracted from an experiment as limited in scope and as uncontrolled as this one, the question still rankled with me, and I want to address it.

So, bear with me while I depart from the typical format of the posts. I won’t be looking at a specific library or Web 2.0 tool, but I think this is an interesting and an important issue to bring up. That said, I don’t claim any expertise on the subject, and I won’t be covering it in any very serious depth; my intention is more to bring up the question as food for thought rather than to answer it myself in any definitive way. This article from Library Journal also provides some useful insight into the matter.

At first glance, the answer to my friend’s query seems rather self-evident. Of course, bigger libraries will have bigger budgets, and as a result, will have more of the resources necessary to create and maintain high-quality Web 2.0 pages, profiles, and tools.

My immediate reaction was to disagree with this, though. Maybe it’s due to a romanticisation (or a perception of romanticisation) of the 2.0 movement on my part, but I’ve always thought of much of the hype around it as being due to its implicit connotations of a more universally accessible and democratic Web. Isn’t the point, after all, to blur the line between creators and consumers, and to make content creation a shared, interactive, and above all, feasible activity for anyone with Internet access?

This, I know, is an oversimplification of the issue. The participatory and social aspects of Web 2.0, its focus on accessibility, and its user- and community- centred approach are, realistically, not enough to overcome the considerable challenges posed by resource shortages. These are just too big and too insidious; we can’t simply make up for deficits of time, staff, and money with eagerness and goodwill.

But as long as we’re going down that road, well, the fact is that nothing is going to be able to compensate for these missing assets. Smaller libraries with smaller budgets just aren’t going to be able to compete on the same level as bigger libraries with bigger budgets.

Such a statement seems too obvious even to merit mention. And yet, part of me (it’s the most stubborn part, and no doubt you recognise it if you’ve been reading this blog) resists accepting it as being relevant to this discussion. Yes, of course libraries with bigger user groups and budgets have an advantage- but I still think that part of the beauty of the Library 2.0 movement is that it’s not all about goods and services in the economic sense we’re all so familiar with.

Libraries with bigger budgets will always win when it comes to whose collection is bigger, who has what gadgets, and who has more buying power in terms of consortia and subscription purchases… But Web 2.0 offers smaller-budget libraries a chance to claim a spot at the cutting-edge of the library sphere. At least in the terms that I’ve discussed here, Web 2.0 tools are free to use and to experiment with, and are limited only by the skills, savvy, and enthusiasm of staff and users.

I’m not saying that smaller libraries don’t still have more challenges to overcome; they absolutely do. Their staff members will have less time to devote to maintaining these tools, they will not be able to offer the same kind of training and orientation to either staff or users, and they won’t have access to some of the more high-tech tools that allow for things like professional-looking multimedia features (see NYPL on YouTube). These, admittedly, are significant obstacles.

But they are by no means insurmountable, and this is an important distinction from other measurements of a library’s success, I would argue. Librarians are proving all the time that they are willing to go above and beyond for the sake of their own libraries and for the library community at large; one need only look to the biblioblogosphere for evidence. They constitute an invaluable human resource that should be tapped, and I think they will be, in the end, the saviours of the public library as an institution.

While smaller libraries are going to have to work a little harder to stay in the game, I think they’re up to the challenge, and there are many examples to be found that prove it. Thanks to the efforts of their staffs, and with judicious hiring practises, encouragement of professional development and creativity, and yes, simple enthusiasm, these libraries will be able to overcome the burden of restrictive budgets and find their niches in the Library 2.0 community. And community it is; despite the tone of many of my posts, the truth of the matter is that libraries don’t need to compete but will actually do better by working together and learning from each other’s mistakes: sharing and collaborating, two of the most fundamental tenets of Web 2.0 ideology.

At the risk of sounding overly optimistic, then, weighing in on a topic that might initially seem hopeless, I’m going to give Library 2.0 and all its potential the benefit of the doubt; what its technologies and philosophies lack in pragmatism, I think librarians will make up for in energy, insight and ardour. Three cheers for the librarian, then, as she wades through this wacky, wonderful 2.0 world, newly navigating through the age-old and treacherous waters of budget constraints and fiscal woes. While these new tools for communication and promotion won’t solve all our problems on these fronts, I think they will go a long way to levelling the playing field for those organisations with limited resources, and to opening up new possibilities during a time when libraries are increasingly all too familiar with such shortcomings. By setting new standards and moving away from an entirely budget-dependent approach, new measures of success will allow for smaller libraries to step up and join the ranks of Library-Two-Point-Whoa.

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