The global economic crisis of the past 2 years has brought harsh circumstances to most libraries, calling into question many of the ways that we allocate resources. Lean budgets force us to devise strategies that make the very most of the resources available. Many libraries face the reality of doing more with less, often much less. It seems like each week brings news of libraries forced to close branches, reduce hours, trim their work force, or reduce or eliminate new collections acquisitions. Even in the best of times it seems that libraries find themselves making due with fewer resources than optimal. I've rarely encountered libraries flush with generous levels of funding such that they don't have to make painful choices among competing priorities. In recent times, this pain has been extreme. This context of libraries struggling through the economic downturn makes it necessary to consider the ways that technology can be used not only to reduce costs but, hopefully, to strengthen libraries' standing relative to more prosperous times.
When it comes to technology, I think that libraries need to form their strategies on how they allocate their resources based on a formula involving value and expense. The key challenge lies in finding the right balance in an equation between cost savings on one side and the value added to the organization on the other. Depending on the circumstances, the library might need to focus more on the expense side of the equation or on value propositions. For some libraries, circumstances require that they find ways to eliminate cost, including expenditures on technology. Others, however, may need to operate within lean budgets but still have the flexibility to make some investments in technology in order to preserve or improve their operations and services. Either approach should result in helping the library make a more powerful strategic impact through technology. It's the tough times that force libraries to think hard about how to make the best strategic use of technology. While we should have that mindset all the time, it's easy to be complacent until circumstances demand action.
Organizations of all types are often able to lower their operational expenses through improved automation infrastructure. The entire history of automation involves creating ways to help libraries operate more efficiently, increasing the productivity of each person in the organization. It's hard to imagine libraries working today without the computer-based systems that automate the routine tasks involved in every aspect of their operations. The current economic climate presents libraries with the challenge of finding any additional efficiency that might be gained beyond the automation systems in common use today and what new ways of delivering library services might be possible that will improve the relative impact of the library on its users.
Collaborative technologies. Libraries facing budget reductions may need to look at how they can maintain their current services in ways that involve savings, including the basic automation support. The different infrastructure deployment models available today involve a range of budget scenarios. Deployment options span a range between local computing, where a library owns and maintains its own servers, and cloud computing, which involves an abstract computing platform provided externally. Each approach involves technical considerations, but especially relevant in this context are the opportunities to make choices between facing higher upfont expenditures with more modest, ongoing operational costs or avoiding initial capital investments in favor of somewhat higher annual payments.
One of the most expensive computing models involves a library operating its own discrete automation platform. The classic example of a library operating its own integrated library system falls into this category. The costs of this approach include not only the server hardware and software but also the technical personnel to manage the installation, the facilities overhead including physical space allocations, and the energy costs to power and cool the equipment. Maintaining a single installation for a single organization provides the fewest opportunities to spread costs and gain efficiencies through economies of larger scale.
Libraries that find themselves in the position of bearing the full burden of supporting an independent automation platform and all its ancillary costs may find substantial savings through alternative arrangements - especially arrangements involving a shared automation platform. Finding ways to share automation platforms can result in lower costs for each institution involved. Libraries have a long-standing tradition of banding together in consortia to lower automation costs or to gain favorable pricing through collective procurements. The current economic pressures may drive some libraries to join a consortium for automation that they might not otherwise have considered. We've also seen some consolidation among consortia as they combine to form even larger organizations that can offer automation and other services at even lower price points. In times past, due consideration had to be given for creating an automation platform within the limits of what the hardware or software might handle. Today, computing equipment scales practically infinitely, imposing few hard limits. That said, organizational or political factors may impose their own boundaries on the scale of cooperation that is possible as libraries form consortia. Yet, moving from an independent, single-institution automation platform to a shared system can provide financial savings and increased opportunities for resource sharing for many libraries.
Patron self-service. Providing facilities for self-service can offer financial benefit for some libraries. Self-service checkout of library materials, for example, has become a well-established routine. Especially in libraries with very high circulation activity levels, providing self-service checkout stations can provide some relief to a work force stretched too thin. By allowing patrons to handle routine checkouts themselves, library personnel can focus on other aspects of service where they can make better use of their unique skills.
My main concern with self-service in libraries involves the potential to lose some of the personal interactions that make positive impressions on patrons and that strengthen the library's - and the librarian's - role as a community resource. But when demanded by fiscal realities, self-service facilities can help libraries operate with fewer personnel, providing needed savings. Increased use of self-service also can help prevent reductions in service hours or even branch closings. Implementing self-check doesn't always have to be an expensive proposition. A wide spectrum of technical options is available for the creation of self-check stations, from options that rely on more sophisticated and expensive RFH) equipment to those that are able to make use of existing bar codes and lower-cost workstations and software.
Open source software. Open source software has gained quite a bit of attention as an alternative to proprietary products that can result in savings to libraries. Some library organizations have documented significantly lower costs through the use of open source software, though it's important to look at the big picture and consider the cumulative impact of offsetting expenses. Libraries can find open source software alternatives for almost any component of their technology infrastructure, including the integrated library system, content management systems, web server software, and operating systems. Open source software may not be for all libraries, however, depending on the software's circumstances for technology support.
These examples show a few obvious ways that technology can be used to decrease the operational costs for a library. It's even more exciting to consider some of the ways that, even in difficult economic times, investments in technology can pay off through adding value to the library's overall position. Innovative use of technology can help the library improve its services in ways that will help preserve an increase in its funding opportunities.
Website redesign. Investments in improving a library's website and information delivery tools can make a dramatic improvement in patrons' perceptions of the library. The website has the potential to influence the perceptions of as many people as the library's physical facilities. A website that looks great and that succeeds in providing high-quality resources can be a great tool for building support for the library in ways that also help support the library's financial position. Compared to the costs of refurbishing its physical facilities, a radical makeover of the library's web presence can yield a dramatic impact at quite a bargain.
Entrepreneurial opportunities. Creative use of technology can provide relief for a library's challenging budget by opening up opportunities to produce income. I've written previously how we were able to significantly increase the volume of the fee-based services for the Vanderbilt Television News Archive through the use of search engine optimization (SEO) techniques. By exposing the metadata that describes the collection of national news broadcasts, we were able to funnel in researchers who found our content on Google and the other internet search engines, with a dramatic financial benefit. For libraries and archives that license the use of images or other forms of digital content or that offer additional entrepreneurial activities, SEO or other technology-based strategies can be a vital component of a business plan.
Although it's never a good thing to have to deal with the effects of an economic downturn, such circumstances can spark creative thinking to make the best of it. I hope those of us working in libraries can use technology to ease the impact of difficult times and even to gain ground in the ways that we serve our users as we arrive at the other end of the crisis.
Energy Efficiency - Turning Off All That Technology
Another opportunity for cost savings involves reducing energy costs associated with computing equipment. Fve written in previous CIL columns that it makes great sense to switch off computing equipment when not in use. Turning equipment off and on, contrary to concerns expressed in earlier times, does not decrease the life span of the equipment. When considering new computer equipment, energy efficiency should be one of the distinguishing factors. If the library operates its own servers or data center, server virtualization allows the combination of multiple applications. These are just some examples of the ways that a library can find savings as it performs a careful assessment of its energy consumption patterns. Reducing energy has great environmental benefits as well.