Effects of economic recession on Icelandic libraries

It has now become clear that the poor state of the economy has had significant effect on public libraries in Iceland. The author’s research, conducted from December 2011 until April 2012, revealed considerable cutbacks in most Icelandic libraries.

The goal of the research project was to collect data on whether, and if so how, cutbacks have been made to the libraries and to identify the effects of said cutbacks. Information was collected from a quarter of Icelandic public libraries and four interviews were conducted with directors. Documents from various public institutions were reviewed and the cutbacks were assessed in an academic context. Recently, a review was conducted of new statistics from the Consortium of Icelandic Libraries so as to better understand developments in the field.

Data from 2007-2011 shows that operational expenditures have increased slightly, indicating that no cutbacks have been made. However, if the rate of inflation is viewed for the same period, it becomes clear that significant cutbacks have been made, or an average of 19 percent.

The level of reduction varies by library. Selected libraries show no reductions in total operational expenditures, while the libraries with the greatest cutbacks have faced reductions of about 40 percent.

Allocations for the purchase of library materials reveal a higher level of cutbacks, and such cutbacks have been made at all libraries in the study. Taking account of inflation, 45 percent of the libraries show reductions of 30 percent of more. The highest level of reduction was over 70 percent, taking account of inflation. Clearly, the libraries are buying less than they once did. Fewer new titles are entered into the Consortium of Icelandic

Libraries than prior to the collapse and directors have had to prioritize their purchasing using new methods. Opening hours have also been shortened in many locations, especially during weekends. The employment statistics of the participating libraries also reveal cutbacks.

No inflation calculations are needed to understand these numbers. In 2007 there were 167.23 positions at the 20 libraries, or an average of 8.36 positions at each library. By 2011, the number of positions had decreased by 8.35 percent to an average of 7.66 at each library.

The change in employment levels does however vary between libraries, and in several places the number of positions has increased. At the libraries with a reduction in the number of positions, the average reduction was 12.45 percent. It seems that immediately after the collapse, few changes were made to the number of positions. More changes were made during 2010 and 2011.

The number of employees at the libraries has decreased more than the reduction in positions. There were a total of 225 employees at the participating libraries in 2007, 218 in 2008, 216 in 2009, 209 in 2010 and 200 in 2011. This is a decrease of 11.11 percent during the period.

The Consortium of Icelandic Libraries, which operates Gegnir, the joint catalogue for Icelandic libraries, collects data on lending and the number of borrowers for most public libraries in Iceland. That data reveals a consistent  increase in lending at the participating libraries until 2010, in addition to an increased number of registered borrowers.

A turnaround seems to have occurred in 2011 regarding the use of libraries. Lending has decreased in many libraries, as have the overall lending levels in the National Registry of Libraries.

The final annual data for 2012 is still not available, although numbers from the Consortium of Icelandic Libraries (landskerfi.is) indicate that the decrease continues. This is a probable indicator of a reduction in purchasing and service levels, leading to a reduction in the use of services and may keep general users away. Many libraries have, however, reported more use of their library’s resources by other institutions, which probably results from cutbacks at those institutions, for example schools and pre-schools.

The most obvious effects of cutbacks in public libraries in the short run are a reduced level of purchasing of library materials and a change in the make-up of library resources. The long-term effects are partly the same regarding purchasing and resources, but are worse in the total level of resources for each library, which becomes consistently reduced with every year of cutbacks.

There is also a risk that library resources become more homogenous, as popularity-driven materials purchasing causes the catalogue to become out of date more quickly, because materials that are popular today, especially fiction, are not necessarily what readers in coming years will be seeking.

A reduction in the purchasing of children’s books is another area of concern. Many library directors in schools and public libraries are concerned that a reduction in the purchasing of new books may possibly affect willingness to read, especially that of children and teenagers. Less reading has a negative effect on literacy. There has been much discussion on the drop in reading levels among children and teenagers.

The Schools and Recreation Department of Reykjavík issued a report in 2011which reveals that reading comprehension is generally decreasing among elementary school children and that a large share of teenagers never read for leisure. A clear connection has been shown between reading comprehension and students’ interest in reading books. Directors have also expressed concern that, with time, a decrease in the quality of library resources may lead to a drop in the number of visitors to public libraries.

In addition, a drop in procurement levels of magazines, foreign materials, academic books and other types of resources will inevitably lead to a decrease in the level of servic toward students. Across the country there are a number of long-distance students at secondary and university level that use the public library due to distance from their own school library.

Other potential long-term effects, according to the interviewees, are fatigue and a sense of giving up among library employees and directors. People can join together to deal with the prevailing issues in the short-run, but when circumstances are difficult for longer periods of time, it is not unlikely that people lose sight of the purpose of the battle.

Persistent cutbacks have a negative effect on continuing education and therefore the skills and value of employees. It is therefore possible that the human resource levels at libraries may decline. That potential decline is more likely the longer the period of cutbacks lasts.

It is clearly necessary to protect libraries and their roles during difficult times and the fight must be kept up on all sides. Library employees are making their best efforts to keep the effects of cutbacks at a minimum for borrowers and continue to try to provide a high standard of service, guided by optimism.

Director of Húsavík public library