It is the email you hope to never get. Your library funding is on the chopping block. What are we to do when something like this happens in our library? On this episode I speak with Jennifer Heneke, Chief Engagement Officer at St. Joseph Public Library in Indiana. She shares what happened when this scenario came to pass in her organization and how they fought back, plus the lessons that were learned that can help all of us in libraries.
Library Leadership Podcast is brought to you by Innovative. Focused on accelerating libraries’ impact on the world, Innovative helps spark connections between libraries and their communities—with a comprehensive portfolio of solutions for libraries worldwide. Innovative technology makes resources accessible to patrons near and far. Learn more at www.iii.com/podcast.
This is Adriane Herrick Juarez. You’re listening to Library Leadership Podcast where we talk about libraries, and leadership, and speak with guests who share their ideas, innovations, and strategic insights into the profession.
It is the email you hoped to never get. Your library funding is on the chopping block. What are we to do when something like this happens in our library? On this episode I speak with Jennifer Henecke, Chief Engagement Officer at St. Joseph Public Library in Indiana. She shares what happened when this scenario came to pass in her organization, and how they fought back, plus the lessons that were learned that can help all of us in libraries. You won’t want to miss it. Enjoy the show!
Jennifer, welcome to the show.
Oh, thank you. It’s so nice to be here.
Question #1: Well, thank you for talking with me today about fighting for library funding. Your library in South Bend, Indiana, the St. Joseph Public County Library, faced serious budget cuts from which you learned valuable lessons that are relevant to all libraries. First, you say to fight for library funding we have to overcome some misconceptions. What are those? 01:26
Well, I think there are really two fundamental misconceptions that can hurt our efforts to advocate for library funding. The biggest one is that libraries are free. It’s really not hard to see where this general idea comes from. It’s because we have free resources. We have helpful staff, and comfortable, safe, and warm spaces. That people can, kind of, just come into. And, there’s no cost of entry.
So, the fact that many of our services and resources are accessible for free to the public often leads to this sense that libraries are equated with free—with no cost. This doesn’t necessarily mean that public libraries operate for free. I think those two things can get mixed up in people’s minds, even in decision-maker’s minds. So public libraries, despite the fact that most of what we offer to the public is free—although the caveat to that is we’re tax funded. So, even that can even be parsed a little bit more. But, we do still need financial support like any other organization.
Without this proper financial support we can’t provide the quality of services that are necessary for our community. I think that’s one of the most critical—this equation of public libraries being free and how that may make the public think about what it costs to operate a library, and where our budget comes from and how meaningful they are.
The second one is that libraries are a given. A lot of people, most people in this country especially, grow up with community libraries. So, even if you didn’t go there very often they’re fairly ubiquitous in our minds—the general sense of what makes a community, what makes a town, or a city.
You see this in popular culture. Any cartoon, or TV show, set in a fictional town has a few things. It has a school. They have a firehouse. They have a courthouse, and they have a public library. I think because of this there’s this sense that libraries exist. They’re always going to be there, and they’re just sort of a guarantee. But, that’s not necessarily the case.
Again without proper funding, without support, public libraries can cease to exist in a community. Even more detrimental, they may cease to be able to provide services that are useful. If we’re not given enough funding we can’t really do all of the things that a library can have an impact on in the community.
The idea that libraries are free, and that they’re a given—it contributes to why we are such a trusted entity. It’s been behind this mission of service to the community. But, we really have to be aware of these conceptions that might exist in the public, based on our service model, and our long tradition of service. We just have to be aware of this when we’re communicating with the public and with decision-makers that they—we understand what frame of reference they have for understanding the library service model, and also where we get our funding. This all plays into why advocacy is important, and why communication efforts are important.
Question #2: Good points. Everything starts and ends with our budgets. So, how can this be a challenge? 05:03
Well, library budgets are, I think, challenging for so many reasons. In some ways we all live by the ebb and tide of the budget cycle. But, even deeper than that, I was thinking about library funding, and I learned so much in that budget crisis we had about library budgets that I didn’t know before. I don’t think library funding sources are necessarily any more complicated than that of any other organization, but that doesn’t mean that they’re easy to understand.
People generally understand how a business gets money, and that’s through the sale of goods. You buy something and they get money. That’s how they pay for their operation. I think people also have a sense of how nonprofits get money—through donations, or grants. But, a library is something entirely different. That presents a few challenges. Each library has its own unique revenue stream. This is why diligent and clear communication with the community is important, and that’s both to the staff, stakeholders, and the public, because we can’t assume that people understand where our budget comes from. I argue that that understanding is so fundamental for fighting for our funding, and for doing advocating, because if people don’t know then how can they even possibly care about what the struggles or conflicts we might have with our budget, if they don’t really understand where they come from?
I think because libraries are free, they’re tax funded, and most people seem to understand that, there is, maybe, a more general sense of where the library budget comes from. But, each community is different. Most libraries have—libraries have a very broad spectrum of where their revenue comes from and what that looks like is different everywhere. So, there’s not a one-size-fits-all story to explain library funding.
So for example, I think most people really assume that funding for libraries, and maybe some other entities, comes from outside the community. But, we know that federal, and state funding really makes up a relatively small part of our budgets, so we’re very dependent on local funding, and local funding decision-makers.
That can be a challenge. And another challenge is that we have limited income streams. We can’t necessarily find new ones, although you hear all the time—these very innovative ways that libraries are finding and creating new revenue streams, but we’re more limited in that sense than a lot of other entities, or organizations. And, that’s why I think communication is the real challenge. How we must make the argument that we’re worth investing in, but we can’t do that if we haven’t taken the time to inform people about how we’re funded in the first place.
And the fact that our funding is local, we need to bring people into that to understand that we’re the base. They’re providing most of the funding that we get in supporting our services. And, that can be a challenge on one side, but it’s also a huge opportunity. Because, we’re not that far separated from the decision-makers, who in many cases are making these important decisions. So, we can communicate more easily with them, and have better relationships, so that we can impact, influence, or inform their decision-making.
Question #3: When it comes to advocating for our libraries, and our library budgets, what do we need to know? 08:34
This is such a big question. I think advocacy is just becoming ever more important in the library space. I think the main thing that we need to know as library professionals is that it’s never too early to start forming relationships with community leaders, and elected officials. I don’t think it has to be a massive campaign, or really a coordinated effort. The point is that you need to make sure that the people who make decisions about our future, and our budget, understand what our library does. That can be a simple conversation over coffee, or a phone call, or it can be running into someone at a meeting and just chatting really quickly. Because, they should know who we are. They should be able to see in real terms what we do. I don’t think it’s enough to say that libraries make a difference once, or twice, and especially not in a time of crisis. A lot of that foundation needs to be laid earlier in order to make a more significant impact.
The main thing that library professionals need to know, at whatever level—leadership, or staff, is that it’s really a sustained and consistent effort. Advocacy—I believe the power of advocacy is about relationships. Whether that’s with the public, or with different stakeholders, it’s having those relationships that you can use in order to inform, and educate, and influence the decisions that are happening.
So, I think there are probably a lot of ways that that question could be answered. But, the most important thing is that it needs to start now, and it needs to be just a constant effort to grow and foster that relationship, so that when you need it—it’s already there and existing. You can just make more of an impact that way.
Question #4: In your library cut situation, everything started with an email. What happened? 10:34
Oh, it was a whirlwind. We received an email from a reporter, a local reporter, who had been to a government meeting and learned that there was a proposed redistribution of the local income tax that would affect multiple entities, including all areas of public libraries—all the libraries in our immediate area, and county. I would say, just as a side note [laughter], this is one of those reasons relationships are so important. Because if we hadn’t had this relationship with the reporter, we may never have gotten this information. I think that just because we had for a while been cultivating relationships with the media, in order to hopefully, get them to tell our stories, we had that in place. He emailed our executive director and that is what kicked it off.
So, there were a variety of entities affected. We were the biggest. We were going to see the biggest cut. We’re also a fairly large library system, especially in the area. We have nine branches and one main library. We were the biggest entity, and the one that was going to see the largest cut. That equated to about half a million dollars. Which, any amount of money is significant, but especially when that was a forever, and always loss that we were going to see over the years. It would probably have grown as income tax rates change, so it was just something that was very frightening for us to see that go away forever, and ever.
It really caught us off guard. We didn’t see this coming. We didn’t know it was on anyone’s agenda. And as we learned pretty quickly, we didn’t have a lot of time to act. We did find out that two of the three governing bodies in our community would need to approve the plan in order for it to go into effect. So, we thought quickly that we probably had two choices. One—we probably had more than that but, we boiled it down to: we could do nothing; or we could do something.
So, within two days of receiving that email we had committed, internally, to fighting the proposed budget cut because we knew that all we had to do was convince one entity, or two entities, not to vote for it. And then, we had—it was a slim margin, but we at least felt like we had something. But, that email really tipped us off, and gave us—not a long amount of time, but at least a little bit of time to get our ducks in order so we could decide what we wanted to do.
Question #5: Fortunately, yeah. What actions did your organization take in response to the proposed budget cuts once you learned this? 13:13
We really did a few key things. I think having some time to get the news and then think it over was so, so critical for us. The first action that we took was to keep staff informed. Our director sent out a Director’s Letter, and we did pretty consistent internal communications throughout the length of this campaign. We felt that this is important because it was a change—if this had happened, this would have affected staff. They’re involved in this, and we wanted them to know all that was happening. We also know that they’re on the front lines. They interact with the public on a much deeper level than some of the administrative teams, so we just felt that it was really important to make sure that they were aware and informed, and knew what was happening from the beginning.
The other thing—well, we did a few things, but another thing we did, is we showed up at every possible council and committee meeting. As soon as we learned about it we looked at the schedule, and we just put that on our calendars. There was at least one, or two of the leadership staff at every single meeting. They got to know our faces pretty quickly. We would walk in there, whether the local income tax redistribution was on the agenda, or not. We would just sit down. We were at meetings for two or three hours. We wouldn’t get up, you know, we stayed the whole time. I think that just kind of showed them that we were there, we were invested. Nothing was antagonistic. It was just a presence, that we’re involved. We’re concerned. They got to know our faces. It also gave us a lot of opportunities to talk with our different officials and form relationships. Because, you know, when the meeting was over we were there to talk to everyone.
And, we did a lot of phone calls, and emails as well. So, we really—we knew that was a group we had to make a relationship that we didn’t have before. So, I’d spoken previously about how important it is to build those relationships. I say that because I wish we had had a stronger relationship to start with.
The other thing we did is work with the other affected entity. There was a group of local transportation authorities, other public libraries—townships. We worked with all of them. We did this because then it was a group of us. It wasn’t one voice, it was many voices. We convened a meeting with the other public libraries. We shared campaign materials with the other organizations because we were larger and we do have a graphic designer on staff. She created a really handy informational flyer, and we shared that template with everyone who might not have had the resources to create that on their own.
We just coordinated everything we did. That meant we weren’t fighting alone. It just gave us a little bit more of a backing. You know, we had a group that was going in this together. And, I think that was so important.
We knew that all of these behind the scene efforts weren’t enough. We also needed to marshal public support. This is where the marketing part of it came in. We conducted a huge campaign called, Neighborhoods Need Libraries. That focused on the impact that this budget cut would have on the community. We made that the focus. It wasn’t necessarily about who was going to get the money, or anything, but it was really about, What do libraries do? How can we serve the community? How many kids are coming into our branches after school? How many resumes are we helping people fill out? How kids are we feeding with our after school snack program?
We tried to hit it that way, and speak to the neighborhood. It took over all of our airways. We stopped promoting anything else. We focused exclusively on this. It was really hard because we had programs happening, services happening. But, this was 24/7 what we put on FaceBook, what we put in our emails. It was just everything, because we didn’t want to deviate from the message. It was that important to us.
We also did a few other things. We gave people an outlet for action. We decided—which did seem like a very drastic move at the time, but we’re so glad we did it, but we decided to close all libraries for one evening. We called it, A Night Without Libraries. We called the community together. We called all our staff together to meet at our main library location, which is downtown. And, we all marched to the county city building to attend one of the meetings together en masse.
I wasn’t sure how it was going to go when we promoted this and put it out there. I remember walking downstairs, outside when we were all supposed to be gathered and seeing 300+ people outside the main library. I think my heart stopped because it was like, Okay, they showed up. They heard our call, and they’re here to support us.
It was staff, volunteers, the public—families that we serve. It was really this beautiful show of support. People made signs. We packed the council chambers. We were overflow. They couldn’t even let us all in the building.
I think those—that combination of, you know, it wasn’t one thing. I think the public support, because people sent hundreds of emails. That was really important. But, it was all of those things. It was just having a menu of different actions that we were taking, is really what made it so successful.
Question #6: Such an amazing response. And, such an amazing outpouring of support from the community, which makes a huge difference. So, how did this all turn out? And what lessons were learned that can help all of us in libraries?19:00
The good ending to the story is at one of the council meetings they decided to table the proposal. That is effectively how it died. That is when we knew we had won—is when they decided they weren’t going to hear the proposal and it was going to stand as it had been previously. I think we all breathed a huge sigh of relief when that happened. We felt like we’d fought, you know, fought Goliath. It was the thing that we didn’t think we had a chance to do, and we did.
We did learn a lot of really valuable lessons. That’s why I feel our experience is useful for other libraries, because there’s not a time when we’re not going to face this. This is something that’s going to come up time, and time again. I think one of the things that was really important was—a valuable lesson is that we took the time to choose our course. We didn’t take too long. We didn’t overthink it. Sometimes we can get into analysis paralysis. But, we took the time we needed and then we stuck with it with clear determination.
We knew where we were going and that’s just—we never deviated from that path. We just hoped it was the right path to be on. Another valuable lesson was that we were clear and concise in our communications. That ended up being so important. We had a call to action. We gave people a way to act. It boiled down to, call, write, attend. It was, call your representative. We gave people all of their representative’s contact information on a one page flyer, in every email, and every social media post. We gave them a script for how to either speak to them on the phone, or to write an email. Then we also posted all council meetings, so that people could attend and be involved in the process. Instead of just saying, We need your help. We need your help. We said, This is specifically how you can do it. And that really made it easy for people to participate.
Also giving them a way to act in terms of like, Coming out and making a sign, and showing your support by physically being at the library to attend this A Night Without Libraries event—gave people a really powerful way to be involved. And, to feel like they had ownership over their library, like we were all in this together.
We also boiled the problem down to a very simple and provocative equation. This is where when I’m talking about how we can translate and communicate, you know, the complexities of library budgets, we didn’t really talk about—we were very informative. We had some graphs that showed where the library budget comes from, but at the end of the day it was a half million dollars for us…one library branch. That was our truth. We knew that was going to be the case.
After explaining everything so people had a background understanding of what our budget looked like, and where it came from, and how transparent we are, and what good stewards we are, we just boiled it down to, we are facing the loss of a branch. I think that equation was really a powerful way to get people involved and inspired.
I think the other lessons are, get to know your officials. Also be gracious. The entire time we weren’t facing this as an us against them. It was always, we’re just—we’re just informing the public. We’re just trying to figure this out together. At the end we thanked everyone. We thanked the council for making their decision. We thanked the public for showing up. I think that just really helped put a nice little wrapper on everything so that it was just this effort, and then we could walk away and go back to serving the community.
Question #7: So good, Jennifer, and it worked. Is there anything else you would like to share? 23:09
Just really briefly, this sort of interaction, these relationships, this advocacy work is going to be something that we probably all have to do more and more. COVID has put a lot of strain, both on budgets, what kind of services libraries are providing—so we’re doing more than ever. And, also having to look at how we might do this if we see funding cuts, or don’t get as much funding from other sources as we think we’re going to get.
Having these skills, and a plan in play, is good for all libraries no matter your size. You could be a one-person operation in a small town, or in a very large system. It’s just worth putting that effort and focus in. We knew that this issue hadn’t gone away forever, so it got put to bed for one year, but we expect that we’re going to have to do something again later. That could look entirely different from what we did this time. But, we also know we’re more prepared than we were before. We’re really grateful to have had the—it seemed crazy at the time, and very stressful, but we’re just grateful that we had to go through it because we’re so much better equipped than we were back in 2019 when that first email arrived.
Question #8: Absolutely. And, now we’re better equipped because you shared your experience with all of us. So, thank you. Do you have a favorite management, or leadership book, and why? 24:31
I do. I always used to read fiction. And, it’s only been in the last few years that I’ve started to read more nonfiction. But, my caveat is that I have a five-year-old. So, I do not get as much reading done as I would like. But, I was thinking what kind of books were formative for me. When I first became a manager I read Making of a Manager, by Julie Zhuo. She rose up in the ranks of Google in the early days. She started out with like, no staff, and then had a large staff at the very end.
I grabbed this book when I knew I was going to become a manager just because the cover was beautiful. Not really a lot of substance in my decision, but I got a lot out of the book, because it was very easy to read. One of the takeaways was about meetings. I never realized that I never put a lot of thought into a meeting. It was either you go into a meeting and it’s this magical thing because the personalities are aligned. Or, you go into a meeting and you’re like, Wow, that wasn’t worth the time. She really discusses what makes a good and productive meeting, and the intention and planning that goes into it.
I would say that I do not have this figured out entirely, but I do approach meetings much more intentionally as a manager, as a leader, because I think that can be a really wonderful way to brainstorm, or come together, or to have discussions, and I think that put that nugget in my head that I have to be very conscious about that.
That sounds very useful.
Because I don’t have a lot of time to read, though, I do listen to Brené Brown’s podcast, which is Daring to Lead. That has been such a good resource for leadership experience and professional advice, especially when you need to fit it into your timeframe. She’s written some really great books and I’d recommend them all, but especially for something for when you just need a quick leadership inspiration. That podcast is fantastic.
Question #9: Absolutely. In closing, what do libraries mean to you, personally? 26:34
Oh, libraries have always been at the edges of my life. I don’t know if I ever spent a whole lot of time really thinking about why the library exists, or what it does. But, I went there as a kid. I went there as a student. I brought my own daughter there. It was always there. Now when I think about libraries, I work in one, and I’m almost done with my MLS, and I realize how interesting that is that the library can be on the edge of your life, and it’s just there.
It’s a lifeline. It’s a safety net. In some ways it’s like a buddy system for so many people. You don’t even need to pay that much attention. I think what is unique about what a library does is it’s very active. We provide access to resources, and information, and technology, and connection with humans, but we’re also this vessel for the community to use. They can come in and use our meeting rooms for whatever purpose they could—just a community group, or a book discussion, or a nonprofit board meeting. We’re that space for them. But also, people can just come and be, and rest, and learn in our space. So, we’re sort of like this really unique combination of community uses.
I think for me, what a library is, it’s a way to grow community, and that’s through access to information, or technology, or just being a welcoming place where a really amazing diversity of individuals come together. So, I was thinking about that periphery idea. And, it’s always sort of there. And, that lifeline aspect is just so powerful. The idea of access, and equity, and connection is really what makes libraries unique in this world.
It really is, and thanks for sharing your story today with us, Jennifer. I think it’s going to give us all a lot to think about to hear this success story in fighting for library budgets. So, I appreciate you being with me today.
Oh, thank you so much. It was really, really an honor and a pleasure to be able to speak with you today.
You’ve been listening to Library Leadership Podcast. This is Adriane Herrick Juarez. For more episodes tune into https://libraryleadershippodcast.com, where you can now subscribe to have monthly updates delivered right into your email inbox. Our producer is Nathan Sinclair Vineyard. Thanks for listening. We’ll see you next time.
We would like to thank the Park City Library for their dedicated support of this show. The opinions expressed on this show are those of the speaker and do not necessarily reflect the views of Library Leadership Podcast, or our sponsors.