Open Libraries Initiative
Brooklyn Public Library, N.Y.
Despite cuts in funding and staffing, Brooklyn Public Library significantly expanded public service hours in September 2011. The expansion was a result of the Open Libraries Initiative, a comprehensive six-month study designed to better understand the impact that recent operational improvements have had on the Library’s ability to deliver service.
Like most public libraries throughout the country, Brooklyn Public Library (BPL) has suffered deep funding cuts in recent years. Since the fiscal year 2008 adopted budget, the library’s city appropriation has been cut by approximately 20%, for a total loss of roughly $15 million. During that same period, the library has lost 170 positions through attrition. As a result of these cuts, BPL responded as most libraries do, decreasing its hours of service. By January 2011, the library was offering only 35.8 hours of service per week per library. Weekend hours had been reduced drastically, as had weekday morning hours, reducing access for job seekers and senior citizens especially. The results were predictable: decreased tax-payer satisfaction and decreased library visibility. At a time when the very need for public libraries is being questioned, a closed branch does nothing to counter the erroneous claim that libraries are becoming obsolete. The preliminary budget for fiscal year 2012, issued in January 2011, called for yet another decrease to the library’s budget. In the face of continued future cuts, it was clear that the viability of the institution over the long term was dependent on finding a way to increase service hours despite funding challenges.
Key Elements of Innovation
In January 2011, Brooklyn Public Library launched its Open Libraries Initiative. The six-month-long institutional study was designed to leverage the numerous operational innovations introduced over the past few years into expanded hours across the branch system. The library conducted staff surveys, analyzed time ladders to determine how each staff member spent his or her work day, performed on-site observations, and conducted a statistical analysis of each of the library’s 60 locations. The results of the study indicated that various operational changes instituted over the past five years had significantly reduced the amount of administrative work branch staff members needed to complete. These changes included eliminating the collection of cash across the circulation desk, the introduction of online fines payment, centralizing collection development, and outsourcing the processing of new books. While the library was still operating under the assumption that a significant number of “behind-the-scenes” hours were necessary for operating a branch, the analysis found that in fact, very few were required. A new staffing model was developed based on branch-by-branch workload analysis. The analysis allotted for time spent on the universe of activities reported by branch staff and was verified by statistical analysis. It included everything from the amount of time it takes to pull a hold to the amount of time it takes to prepare for a program. The analysis suggested that in several locations, based on existing staffing levels, service hours could be increased by as much as 15 hours per week. Finally, the initiative also sought to find ways to minimize the impact that a given staff member’s scheduled day off has on branch operations. A new “pairing” system (among those branches open five days per week) was devised so that a staff member’s regular day off could always coincide with his or her branch being closed.
Informed by the results of the institutional analysis, on September 10, 2011, Brooklyn Public Library increased weekly system-wide service hours by 441 hours, or by roughly one extra day of service per week per branch. Libraries are now open an average of 43.4 hours per branch per week, representing a 21% increase in hours, despite years of funding cutbacks and a three-year hiring freeze. Currently, over half of BPL’s branches are open six days per week and more than two-thirds offer Saturday service. Patrons have benefited from the additional hours of operation in every imaginable way. Job seekers and the elderly now have the quiet morning hours they have wanted for years. Local elected officials lauded the library in their press releases as an example of an institution that has learned to do more with less. The library has generated an incredible amount of good will that positions it well for future budget negotiations with New York City. The Open Libraries Initiative made it possible for Brooklyn Public Library to accomplish what was once unthinkable: expand service hours with less funding and fewer employees. The results of the study suggest that libraries throughout the country may be able to increase their hours if they analyze existing branch workloads and take into account the various service efficiencies they have instituted over the years. At a time when library funding continues to decrease, the Open Libraries Initiative exemplifies that it is possible to expand hours of operation with fewer resources.