IFLA is  launching a series of interviews looking to learn the lessons from the financial crisis of 2008, and its aftermath, for library advocacy today. In this post, we talk to former IFLA President Claudia Lux about her experiences and ideas, preceded by an introduction to the series by IFLA Secretary General Gerald Leitner.

The years to come will undoubtedly be challenging both for libraries and the communities they serve. The economic and social consequences of the pandemic, and the necessary measures taken in response, will be with us for a long time to come. Libraries are already experiencing the impacts, with many forced to lose or furlough staff, and cut budgets for acquisitions and programming.

To ensure that our profession can continue to fulfil its mission, supporting education, research, preservation and cultural participation, it will be essential to ensure that decision-makers – in governments, in institutions, in communities – recognise the role that libraries can and do play. For this, we need to advocate.

Fortunately, we are not starting from nothing. Libraries around the world have build up advocacy capacity and skills. In particular, we can learn a lot from all that we experienced during the global financial crisis of 2008 and the following years.

This series of interviews, starting with former IFLA Presidents, looks to share some of these experiences, in order to draw lessons that we can apply today.

Gerald Leitner
IFLA Secretary General

Claudia Lux, IFLA President 2007-2009, speaking at the World Library and Information Congress 2018

IFLA: What role did you hold in the years following the 2008 financial crisis, both within IFLA and nationally?

Claudia Lux: I was IFLA President during this time. My main job was Director General of the Central and Regional Library of Berlin – a big public and research library in Germany with about 350 staff members.

How badly did the crisis hit your country?

The crisis hit Germany very badly, one bank went bankrupt and the economy went down. The government did try to mitigate the situation and took some measures, but those cost a lot of money.

As a result, in the following years our library’s budget came under pressure. In 2011 I was asked to save 300 000 Euro. I was lucky, as I could integrate a part of the library into the main building to save the cost of the rent and related costs. In the end, even more than 300 000 Euro was saved. However the process of integration and change was not easy and we had to convince staff and develop new thinking.      

How did libraries respond during the crisis itself in your country?

Very differently! Some communities were not allowed to spend any money while others were better off. In the first former, libraries could not buy any new books for a few years.   

Moreover, not all libraries in Germany could answer the crisis with creative ideas. Some public libraries had to close branches, which was not well received by the public. Others had to postpone new buildings or new programmes.

What was the impact of the crisis on the funding sources that support libraries in your country?

From 2007 to 2012 the number of library locations in Germany fell from 10 365 to 9 446. In 2009 and 2010, the acquisitions budget for all public libraries dropped. The library association started a regular survey on the financial situation of public libraries in Germany In general, 25% to 30% of the public libraries participating in these surveys recognised the need for financial consolidation – less money than before – in order to enable long-term sustainability.

What sort of activities did libraries in your country carry out to defend their funding?

We started to talk about the possibility of a library law, as the current situation does not support libraries. To run a library is a voluntary decision of the community. But if a community, village, town or city does not have enough money to support all their compulsory tasks, they cut the budget of the library. Advocacy work is needed before the situation becomes critical.   

To support this, the library association started a situation report on libraries, talking about the financial crisis and the budget, to make the situation of libraries public. .   

What actions and what arguments worked most effectively in your country and internationally?

At the end of 2008, library associations finalised a paper called “21 good reasons for good libraries” which helped to support arguments about how library work is relevant for people. Politicians need to understand library services better.

A good example was a look back at the past. When I checked the history of my library, I found out that the library had no budget at all in some years  in the 20s, but later the budget grew. When you analyse this, you see that the current situation is not forever. You get strength to work for mitigation as much as possible, and you don’t lose your hope for a better future.

A good example: In the 80s, the state of Bavaria supported libraries in cities where big companies had gone bankrupt and made a lot of workers redundant. The libraries got more budget to support these workers and their families with additional information and materials for lifelong learning, a new job opportunity and with literature to for mental support. I think this is an excellent example that can be used to request additional budget in times such as these as libraries help to mitigate crises.

What recommendations do you have for library advocates following the COVID-19 pandemic?

Restart your energy, you know that your service helps every part of society. Let people and your stakeholders know how you supported people’s wellbeing and education during the pandemic, and how your work will support reactivation and development after the pandemic. Knowledge is the key to development and libraries are a catalyst, and incubator for knowledge society development.

Let me add a story from 2010 when I talked at the Icelandic library conference. It was a time when Iceland was financially in a bad place. The day before, nearly all library directors from Iceland had received bad news about their budgets, and were urged to fire some staff. It was a very depressed situation at the beginning of the conference.

My talk was about Libraries on the Agenda, and how to advocate for libraries, with a reminder that this was not the first time libraries had been under pressure. History taught us that things will change again. Advocating for library services in a crisis (the Bavarian example etc.), makes the difference.

For some Icelandic librarians the talk supported their strength to fight and not accept the situation. More importantly, to be together at a conference and talk about the challenges and find new solutions helped to overcome the bad situation.