Tuesday, May 15, 2007

My Take on New Models

Why are we talking about this?

Later this year, the state begins the process for determining the fiscal year 2008/2009 budget. As we are all painfully aware, the budgets for the current fiscal year 2006/2007 and the upcoming fiscal year 2007/2008 are not yet completed. I was also a participant and observer of the process for the fiscal year 2004/2005 budget. Each time the process takes place, the Budget Office and the members of the Legislature have many questions about the uses of the appropriation for state aid to public libraries. This is understandable, of course, and the portion of the appropriation that gets paid directly to Michigan’s public libraries on a per capita basis is easily explained and justified. Addressing the questions about how the portions of the appropriation that are there to support library cooperatives is more problematic, and instead of becoming easier each year, the explanation becomes more difficult to articulate effectively as time passes.

The difficulty is due in part to the complexity and cumbersome nature of the distribution formula. But a large part of the challenge is the fact that the services that the thirteen library cooperatives provide to their member libraries and the way that they utilize (or do not utilize) some or all of the so-called swing aid funds vary from cooperative to cooperative. In addition to the disparity of services provided and uneven utilization of cooperative and swing aid funds, the decades-old model for how cooperatives are formed and established has evolved over time into an unwieldy, inequitable, geographically undefined system that does not inevitably result in enhanced public library service in the same degree for every resident of Michigan, even though state funds are appropriated and distributed for the purpose. Without any defined regional boundaries or identifiable and ensured core services, an unintended culture of haves and have-nots has arisen.

Just about a year ago, as I traveled around to speak with library directors at various cooperative member meetings, people began asking me to share my thoughts on what the future of library cooperatives might look like. My response was disturbing to some, but from my point of view, it was the only realistic and honest way to approach the question. I acknowledged that the system’s design is old and has been of falling out of date. In the past few decades, libraries have changed with the times and adjusted to the changing needs of their patrons and communities in so many significant ways, so it is inevitable that library cooperatives and the way they are established and function need to change as well.

The Library of Michigan is also part of the changing library scene. The Library of Michigan did not create the Michigan eLibrary catalog and resource sharing system (MeLCat), or require participation in statewide delivery as a pre-requisite to participation, in order to usurp two of the established roles that library cooperatives had played to date. We did it because it was time to do it and because it was the role of a state library to support the expansion of statewide services into the 21st century. Regardless of the intent, however, clearly library directors and staff began to see that those two services (resource sharing and delivery) are moving away from being defined by region or library cooperative, and they began to ask about the future.

I emphasized that change in the system is inevitable, as evidenced by the fact that change was already under way. I urged people to engage in developing and designing a new model, to be proactive about the change that is inevitable by having a hand in shaping it. Library cooperatives or regionally distributed service to public libraries can still play a significant role in the success of our public and other types of libraries, but only if new aspects of that role are discovered and defined. My hope was to ignite successful thinking and action to design a new model for regional services to libraries before the old model gradually but inevitably falls out of relevance and utility. Unfortunately, the fiscal crisis in the state has arrived before we were able to have something new and solid in place. But, that does not mean that we should abandon our efforts to define and create a new model that incorporates sustainable components for the statewide and regional enhancement of public library service for all of Michigan’s residents in a fashion that will convince the state Budget Office and the state Legislature to appropriate state funds to support it.

What are my ideas about how to design the new model?

First, I believe that there should be fewer regional centers. I do not know exactly how many or what the boundaries should be at this point, but about six seems like the right number to me. Part of the issue for budget and legislative queries relates to the fact that thirteen administrative bodies are a lot to fund. The large number of cooperatives results in a disproportionate amount of state funds being expended on administration, such as staffing, overhead, etc., rather than having the bulk of whatever funding is appropriated going to sustain or enhance the services that Michigan’s residents receive at their public libraries. Consolidation is in order, and consolidation is an activity that will more likely be met with a positive response from government than the perpetuation of so many disparate administrative units would be.

Second, I would like to see defined contiguous geographic boundaries for the six or so regional entities. This would mean that when libraries establish themselves, when districts form, when libraries dissolve, the state funding that is provided for a particular region would remain constant according to the population served within a prescribed boundary. Libraries would not have to shop around for admission to the library cooperative that is willing to take them on; regional entities would not be vying for the participation of the more successful, better supported libraries. I am not sure how the funding formula should be defined to ensure that each defined region gets enough of the state aid to public libraries dollars to be able to provide similar, equitable quality core services. There would need to be some kind of accommodation for distance or density. Ideally, the regionally distributed services would be evenly and adequately funded by the state aid dollars and successfully provided no matter which region a resident lives in or where a library is located.

Third, some core services should be identified so that the public libraries and their residents in any region know what to expect from the state funds that serve them regionally or statewide, and so that budget officials and legislators can know what will be left unaccomplished or un-provided if they do not provide or sustain funding for it! I do not think that the core services should be itemized in legislation, but rather they should be generally mandated in the legislation and a mechanism should be included for defining them and reviewing their relevance and utility on a regular periodic basis.

My thought would be that some of them might be of statewide expanse – for example, aside from the portion of state aid funds that are distributed directly to libraries to support their operation, a portion of the state aid to public libraries might be used to cover the annual cost of statewide delivery for all public libraries in the state. Since participation in statewide delivery is required in order to participate in the statewide resource sharing system, MeLCat, it seems logical for the state to cover directly the costs of participation in the delivery service. Another possibility for coverage of a statewide expense could be a provision for libraries to utilize some of these identified funds in ways that make it financially and/or otherwise possible for them to participate in MeLCat, beyond the delivery costs. (These dollars might be used as the library sees fit, as long as the result is an enhanced ability to participate in the statewide resource sharing system. One library might use these funds to pay a portion of their costs for participating in a shared integrated library system through which they are able to participate in MeLCat. Another might use the funds to pay the costs of the additional staff they need due to increased circulation of materials being borrowed or lent through their participation in MeLCat.)

[NOTE: I would not expect that a shared ILS be specifically identified as a core regional service for the use of state aid funds for several reasons. First, not every regional center has or operates a shared system. Second, the concept of a shared system need not be regionally defined. It could be defined by library type, size, or common need, beyond regional location. But offering some opportunity to fund engagement in a shared system, no matter how it is formed, as a way to participate in a statewide service like MeLCat, as I described in the paragraph above, might be workable.]

A second tier of core services would logically be more regionally focused, because they would require proximity for provision of service. An example of this type of regional core service might be that each regional center provides technology trouble-shooting, training, and support. Another might be that each regional center serves as a central storage facility and coordinates and maintains a comprehensive shared set of disaster recovery supplies and/or contracts in the event of a collections disaster in any one or more libraries falling within that region’s boundaries. Another might be provision of regionally located continuing education opportunities, much as cooperatives engage in currently.

How could accountability for quality and quantity of services be ensured in such a model?

Accountability is an issue in the current system, partially because of the variability and disparate nature of the services provided with the state dollars used to fund the cooperatives.

If there are defined boundaries and defined services to be accomplished with the designated state dollars, a logical option would be to have the managers of the regional centers be employees of the Library of Michigan. In addition to the obvious opportunity to monitor even-handed application of funds and provision of services, this model would afford constant communication between the regions and the state library. Additionally, this model is likely to be looked upon favorably by those holding the purse strings of state dollars, since a state agency would be managing the funds and coordinating their expenditure on defined services.
Given the complexity and uneven expenditure of the swing aid provided in the current funding and regional establishment model, my preference would be to eliminate the concept of swing aid altogether. Beyond the portion of state aid that goes directly to libraries, a second defined portion of the state aid to public libraries appropriation could be dedicated to two branches of funds that would go directly to statewide and regional support services, respectively.

[NOTE: Even if regional centers result in defined core services and boundaries, this would not preclude local decision or obstruct the opportunity to engage in other un-imposed partnerships either within or outside of the regional boundaries. Collaboration of any kind is always to be encouraged and freely engaged in – it is just the state funded services that would fall under these defined boundaries and be earmarked specifically for these core services, since these alone would be what the regional centers would need to be held accountable for, given that they would be funded by state dollars.]

What should we expect to happen now?

First, the current fiscal crisis looms obviously and ominously. The sustainability of cooperatives as they are now established is unfortunately in question if state aid to public libraries is not forthcoming. I certainly hope that the current payments will be released soon and that state aid to public libraries is sufficient for the upcoming fiscal year staring on October 1st.

But in any case, several cooperatives are currently without directors and some are either dissolving or reducing their operations to minimal levels. The time is ripe for action and for consolidation. The current budget situation demands that we show we are working towards more efficiency, more accountability, and more clearly identifiable uses of limited state funds.

The thoughts I have outlined at length above are my considered opinion at this point. I have been asking and continue to ask for input, not just from the cooperative directors, but from you as well. The more ideas we have to work with, the better! The Michigan Library Association will, I am sure, be involved in any discussion related to revision or creation of legislation, as will the state Budget Office, the Legislature, and the administrative, gubernatorial and legislative liaisons here at the Department of History, Arts and Libraries.

Just because I, or anyone else, may have some ideas about how to design a new model for state funded regionally provided public library services, does not mean that model will automatically become reality. It has to be built in a way that the funding sources are willing to embrace the concept; it will have to have a timeline for public comment; it will undergo countless revisions and involve compromise and collaboration. Any legislation would have to have timelines for compliance, i.e., a transition period, and would need to account for grace periods or have workable deadlines for changes in administrative or budgetary structure. This is not something that can or will happen overnight.

I take it as my responsibility as your state librarian to be thinking ahead, to be formulating and generating ideas about the future, and to be concerned about and active in trying to move us forward in a fashion that will be sustainable over the long haul, be deemed acceptable for funding by state sources, and that will be good for Michigan’s public libraries well into the future. Of course, having laid this out, I encourage constructive discussion from all segments of the library community so that we can develop a plan to go forward together as a community to the public and the Legislature.

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