Tuesday, April 27, 2010

Unconventional Career Advice #2: Don't Do More With Less

Today I am presenting at the New Jersey Library Association conference in Long Branch, NJ. I was asked to present on the digital library initiative that I started at our university library. The focus of the talk is on doing more with less. I was thinking about this yesterday as I was reviewing my notes, and it occurs to me that this is actually very bad advice in some situations.

If you’re running your own business or doing something as a hobby, it makes sense to do more with less. Most of us are not rich, and there are so many free technological resources out there that allow us to do things with little or no funding that we couldn’t have dreamed of doing before. However, if you work for big business or government, doing more with less can be a liability. This is not to say that you should waste money. But you should never give up the money you have.

There was a Dilbert cartoon years ago that illustrated the “proper” way to budget. The “right” way was to go over budget, and have the boss say, “Well, I guess I’ll have to give you more money, but don’t do this again.” The “wrong” way is the sensible one—to try to cut costs and come in under budget. Why? Because, as the cartoon shows—when the employee says, “I came in 20% under budget this year,” the boss then says, “Good. I’m cutting your budget by 20%.” This may be a cartoon, but it’s not a joke. That’s exactly how it works. If you don’t use it, you lose it.

This is important to understand in the state of New Jersey right now, as the governor is looking to take a hatchet to most public services in his budget. I was astounded by a radio interview that the governor gave, in which he said that New Jersey libraries would not be affected by losing state money, as they already had municipal funding. He apparently has closed his eyes to the fact that a.) that “funding” is miniscule, b.) there is a bill in the NJ legislature to cut that funding as well, and c.) Libraries will lose millions in federal grant funds as a result of not being able to continue state-funded programs. Which translates to: closing 100 municipal libraries in the state, losing Internet access in about half of the libraries over the next couple of years, shutting down 2 of the 4 state cooperatives put together to share costs and negotiate discounts, and—no more interlibrary loan or delivery services. I recall that the one County library I used to work for sent almost 20,000 books a month via interlibrary loan—and that was one library. I’m guessing that this will be a service that will be missed, as will all of the free databases,and Internet access.

The State Librarian asked why the governor’s office did this, when the libraries went out of their way to cut costs, and actually saved the state money, AND library usage over the last couple of years has nearly doubled (by understaffed libraries struggling to get by with less and less funding). She was told by politicians that they “had no answer” to that question.

But I do have an answer. The State Library behaved responsibly and sensibly with the money they were given, a move that is always punished. The sense was that “libraries have always done more with less”, so losing their funding won’t hurt them. The worst answer you can give in the face of such cuts is, “we’ll figure out a way to make it work.” No, you demonstrate that by losing funding, it WON’T work. It is good to have a “service” attitude and a desire to help those who come into your building. But you don’t help them by bending over backwards and shelling out your own resources. People don’t place the right value on library services because they don’t see what they really cost, and librarians don’t do enough to make people aware of the costs. We are information professionals, not MacGyver clones. I’m not putting together a makeshift solution with chewing gum and a paper clip. Citizens deserve better treatment than this for what they shell out in state taxes. And by saying we can do more with less, we’re saying that our services aren’t valuable or necessary.

One of the many hats I wear is that of a Reiki Master. When I was taking my Reiki training, we were told the story of Mrs. Hawayo Takata, who is credited with bringing Reiki to the United States. She was from Hawaii, and after receiving her Master attunement , she offered to train others for free. What she found was that no one had any interest or placed any value on what she offered them. She changed her tune and decided that in order to Master, one had to pay her $10,000. And she immediately had willing and dedicated applicants. Why? Because the high dollar amount suggested a high value. Americans would rather pay more for something, because they believe that the dollar amount is somehow related to its intrinsic value. The same is true of “free” or inexpensive services. Even with Web 2.0 technology, most people feel that they don’t get enough with the “free” versions of things. There must be a cost to make it valuable.

There is probably a lesson in here about the psychology of our culture and our economic situation. But I think it suffices to say that if you don’t place a value on yourself and your services, no one else will either.

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