A recent and unfortunate trend in cultural institutions has been the defunding, reduction and elimination of libraries. Recently, in the art museum research library where I started working as an intern in June, I found myself in an unexpected situation. After the museum board enacted organizational restructuring and budget cuts, the head librarian, who was also my supervisor, was suddenly let go. Our library staff was reduced to only myself and the remaining library assistant. As a result, my internship quickly became a very different kind of learning experience, in which I had to take on many more responsibilities than an intern would normally assume, including collection development and managing the library’s budget.
A major problem for the library was that it was not an independent department. As part of the museum’s education department, the library lacked autonomous authority and was subject to their budget and decision making. This situation can seem in some ways to make sense, as libraries are seen as educational resources intended to support institutional growth through their programs, collections, and staff. However, in this case, being made to answer to the education department had robbed the library of its agency, forcing the staff to continually advocate for and fight to prove their relevance to a separate department that didn’t fully understand the library’s function and necessity. One of the last things my supervisor impressed upon me before she left was the risk involved in heading a department over which you lack complete authority. I understand now, more than ever, that too many people are without an understanding of what librarians do. Too often, institutions focus on budget at the cost of other values, and look only at the revenue the library generates versus the cost of staffing and acquisitions. Administrators were not under the correct impressions of my previous supervisor’s work here, and found themselves between a rock and a hard place after letting her go.
It was this series of events that led to me- a student intern – working on the library budget. One of the first unsupervised tasks that I completed was having to make severe cuts to the periodical budget. It was not easy for me, but, given the stresses surrounding the situation, it was a relief to see an $8,000 EBSCO contract reduced to less than $2,000. For my new supervisor, it may have initially been purely a financial consideration, but when I was able to talk to her and explain the decision making process I had been forced to go through, on my own, she was actually surprised. I explained considerations such as the time and staff it would take to move entire periodicals runs to archival spaces, or evaluating resource value by circulation and use. Having open conversations with her about these issues made the inevitable budget cuts easier to manage, and being honest in the decision making process helped to ensure that the collection was going to be taken care of well after I left. I hoped that this might help future staff make informed decisions in maintaining the periodical budget.
One change I made during this difficult process was in digital collection management, eliminating some older runs of hardcopy periodicals, while transitioning to a larger selection of digital resources. Not only was this more cost effective but it also freed up a large amount of shelf space for future collection growth without librarian supervision. Communicating with the education department about our digital collections was another eye-opener for them, and gave me an opportunity to put my own professional and technical knowledge to use, as they had been previously unaware of the cost efficiency and ease of access offered by electronic resources.
In the midst of so much upheaval there were obviously elements that needed to be preserved, particularly within the library’s special collections. For example, some periodicals were complete runs from as far back as the late 19th century to the present, and rare materials such as these were treated appropriately.
At the same time, though, some things had to change, and I felt that foremost I needed to work on the educational staff’s perception that the library was not a part of the museum itself, nor an asset worth protecting or investing in. The department was not fully aware of the monetary value of library collections when considering construction in library spaces. The decisions proposed were potentially disastrous to the library and the collection itself. Because the focus of so many conversations had been about budget, I decided to present them with numbers. Before being let go, the library’s director had consulted a local book dealer to give a professional appraisal of the collection; presenting a million-dollar replacement cost to my new supervisor did not go unnoticed. She was shell shocked. This library, and thus the education department, were sitting on millions in donations and library purchases. With an already tight library purchasing budget, the risk of endangering the collections quickly became out of the question.
Left: Boxes of periodicals from the collections stacked on palettes for removal from the library; Right: Library collections protected with plastic sheeting from localized construction, covered after appraisal discussions with education department. Photos by the author.
After this conversation the preservation of the current collection became a renewed focus for the Education department. Additionally, best practices on how to care for rare and fragile items were introduced into staff seminars so education staff could properly care for library materials. In the future, should non-librarians find themselves handling the special collections items, they would find themselves prepared to do so. Because documents establishing best practices were created, I finally felt that my work was making a difference in the future of the art research library.
Working on collection development and a library budget as an intern is not an easy task, and the decisions that I had to make felt inappropriate, especially as I had little experience. I struggled with this, and wondered: why me? Why was I being given these task? I had just started and was unfamiliar with the museum collections, as well as the needs of the curators and the educational staff. I also wondered: why now? Why would an institution hire an intern, being aware that they were preparing to eliminate the entirety of the library staff in the next fiscal year?
Before my supervisor left she introduced me to the book Art Museum Libraries and Librarianship, edited by Joan M. Benedetti, which has become one of my most valuable resources. Chapter 7, Deborah Barlow Smedstad’s “Art Museum Collections and Collection Development”, outlines the potential needs, varying visitor bases, and collection focuses of other art museum libraries; no doubt, this must have described her own situation when it was published in 2007. Reading this gave me perspective regarding questions that I needed to consider before making decisions about budget cuts, such as: what library materials do the curators physically use? What expenditures can I convince the department are most important? What practices can I establish that require the least formal knowledge to continue library operations? How can we continue to make the library materials available to visitors, while also continuing to serve museum staff? And, most importantly, how can the education department, in the absence of an actual librarian, continue our work responsibly?
Ultimately, one of the most important lessons I have learned from this experience is that collection development is not only about building a collection that establishes relationships with visitors, but also with the organization itself. I am extremely grateful for this experience, despite the downfalls. I have gained skills that I may not have otherwise, navigating the troubled waters of librarianship and outward perceptions of this profession and its importance. I can more accurately communicate the importance of proper training when dealing with rare and fragile materials and the consequences of an improperly stewarded collection. I learned how to engage with organizations focused on budgeting and expenditures. Most importantly, I became a voice for the library at this particular art museum, honing my skills as both a communicator and an educator to advocate for the continued collection of materials during these next few, potentially frugal, fiscal years. At the end of her chapter in Art Museum Libraries and Librarianship, Deborah Barlow Smedstad leaves the reader with the following quote: “While the challenges of limited budgets and staff may seem insurmountable at times, the rewards of working in an art museum library are many. The opportunities for personal growth and cultural enrichment occur on a daily basis and make the environment a highly stimulating one.” Despite the difficult situation I was unexpectedly thrust into during this internship, I couldn’t agree more.
Klaudia Kendall is a candidate for an MLIS at the University of Arizona and a summer intern at an art research library in the Southwest United States.