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Vol. 23, No. 4/Summer 2001

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Marcia MacVaneSmall Libraries: Managing the bad times
By Marcia MacVane

Being in a rather frantic race for a topic for this issue’s column, I went for a stroll through my collection of back issues of News Library News hoping that something would jump out at me. What I found was a recurring theme - and not only in small libraries – of consistently being asked to do more (and often with less): be more efficient, save more money, make more money, do more research, do more training, start this after you finish that, etc. There seemed no end to the requests, but library staffs appeared to be one of the first on the "firing" line when downsizing happened. Even the downsizing took on a rhythm of its own - 1991, 1996, 2001. Hmmm, maybe by 2006 I will be ready to retire!

This year – the year of the census – many small libraries have the added pressure of contributing to census stories. At the end of 2000, our library was poised to train in census data processing. We had mapped out the year and had secured funding for the first round of training. And then February happened. Ads started disappearing from our pages and measures were instituted to stem the flow of money. When one of my full-time staff decided to leave, we were allowed to replace only one of her five shifts.

In a library where they were ONLY two full-time employees and two part-time employees, this was a huge cut.

What to do? The staff seemed to want to cut back on everything. Their reaction was similar to what I have seen exhibited by school departments when faced with budget cuts: remove that which people will make the most noise about losing. However, I decided that I wanted to try to make this work - that my job as a manager dictated that I not only manage in good times, but that my true value was to manage in bad times.

We had to keep enhancing and sending our stories out to the vendors. We had to keep our image database up to date. The reporters needed to have research done for them – they also were working with fewer people. And the census – our pet project, one on which we had pinned our future roles in the newsroom? The census project editor and I had a meeting to determine what our role could be. I wanted to go for it and train at least one library assistant and free her up as much as possible for census work, allowing her to work hand-in-hand with the reporters doing the census stories. But how?

I did have a couple of good things happening. For one, we recently purchased a new graphics and text archiving system. I had been working with the Tech Services department to fine-tune the scripts and filters to eliminate a lot of the busy work we had been doing with our old system. It had been on my list, but not high up. It took a big leap as I tried to identify better and faster methods of working on the day’s stories. This is still a work-in-progress, but it is much better than before.

We also held a series of workflow meetings to identify our daily "road-blocks." This process is not quite done, but we have isolated several processes from other departments that were negatively affecting us and causing our department to spend more time than necessary on specific tasks. We are working with those departments now to fine-tune some of their workflow issues that will in turn help our workflow.

We had several meetings to discuss staff hours. The employee who left was the one employee who covered our Saturday shift. Staff morale was an issue as well as quality of life. No one else wanted to work Saturdays. I requested to leave the library unstaffed on Saturdays for a test period of one month. There would be a news clerk available should anyone need some help, but all reporters have access to our text database which goes back to 1994 and they all know how to search for clippings. I felt pretty confident there would be no repercussion on this one and there wasn’t. My Sunday staffer would then be required to enhance as much of the news from both Saturday and Sunday as possible, basically spending her entire shift doing only that. I took a few hours from the one shift I was given and added it to the news clerks’ weekend shifts for processing microfilm and sorting newspapers, etc. (I manage both the library assistants and the news clerks.)

This left about 4.5 hours. I assigned those hours to one of the two part-timers to work on the weekend overflow, and we began new schedules and new assignments, including census work. For probably ninety-percent of the time, we do absolutely wonderful - the staff works at a high energy level with continued excellence. We produce timelines and do research, and more importantly, we have served as an example to the newsroom. Although there were some initial complaints, everyone on my staff realizes the importance of their work. Although many expected a knee-jerk reaction, we rose above that.

However, we have had some days that were absolutely terrible, such as having research and timeline requests near deadline along with a backlog of archiving needs. We know we need to keep a clear vision of our priorities and use that to determine schedules for the day and week.

As the census work has increased I have had to "steal" from my vacation hours allotment and add some hours to the library schedule. I won’t be able to replace someone 1-for-1 while they are on vacation, but we can make that work as well. I now spend far more hours in planning than ever before, but our department continues to meet all of its goals and deadlines. I couldn’t be more proud of the staff. Hopefully when this economic downturn reverses itself our contributions to the newsroom will be apparent and staffing levels can be increased.

Marcia MacVane is Library Director at the Portland Press Herald / Maine Sunday Telegram. You can contact her at or (207) 791-6318.