Lessons learned for library advocacy from the 2008 crisis: Interview with Glòria Pérez-Salmerón
16 February 2021
While difficult financial times almost certainly lie ahead for many countries, it is not inevitable that libraries must suffer. Instead, we have an opportunity to underline the potential of our institutions – and the necessity of our mission – to support a strong and equitable recovery.
In the second of a series focusing on sharing and drawing on experience of what works in library advocacy, we talked to Glòria Pérez-Salmerón, IFLA President 2017-2019, in order to learn lessons from the 2008 financial crisis and its aftermath that can help us today.
IFLA: What role did you hold in the years following the 2008 financial crisis, both within IFLA and nationally?
Glòria Pérez-Salmerón: In 2008 I was appointed Director of the National Library of Spain while I was the President of FESABID (Spanish Federation of Libraries, Archives, Documentation and Museums Associations).
My job until that moment was to head the e-Government Office of the Diputació de Barcelona (Barcelona Provincial Council). The Diputació is a supra–local Administration that provides services to 311 municipalities.
I oversaw this important Office, which is committed to providing electronic and digital services, assistance, and support to local governments in the Barcelona Province, an area with a population of over 5.6 million inhabitants.
It was an interesting time, and I had an extraordinary budget devoted to enabling our municipalities to start work to connect themselves and be able both to implement the European Union eGovernment Directive on the one hand, and to understand rules on personal data and the mechanics of connectivity and web services on the other.
To do this, I had to design a new kind of Office, build a new team with special profiles, for a types of jobs which had never previously been seen in the sector. At the Office we therefore had to learn first how to tackle the transposition of the European Directive into national law, and then to develop and implement strategies and structures to fit the new environment. I must admit that everything was new to me, but fortunately, many of the challenges faced were the same as those experienced in libraries.
Indeed, my thirty years of library expertise serving the public gave me the knowledge that I needed to create this important social tool. I could see that the services we were providing in public libraries were absolutely aligned with social services provided by local governments. It was about providing access to information in a fight against the digital divide as well.
This experience helped me to understand the huge importance of meaningful access to information as a principle of development. Connection to the internet and digital skills training is a route to more social equality and development. It is a matter of democracy.
In parallel, during these years, I was involved in IFLA and EBLIDA. Since 2005, I was an member of the IFLA Public Libraries Section Standing Committee and an EBLIDA Executive Committee member becoming Vice-President in 2011.
Both my job experience in Digital Library services, e-government, and IFLA’s work made me a sort of activist civil servant around access to information, focusing my official and voluntary day-to-day work on advocating in favour of meaningful access to information as the gateway to knowledge and social development.
My job as National Librarian was an incredible experience for me as well. I could understand better than ever how important national tools are to delivering access to knowledge to all citizens and facilitate technical work to all kinds of libraries of the National Library System.
In addition, I focused my work on running the tricentenary events of the National Library of Spain (BNE). It was a year-long celebration. The motto was “The BNE is yours”, essentially opening up the library and digital library services to the people and reinforcing its role as a national tool for all.
How badly did the crisis hit your country?
In Spain, the effects of the economic crisis in libraries are still quite profound, and could still be felt in recent years. It is, I admit, heart-breaking, because for the 20 years up until the crisis, Spanish libraries had benefitted from investment and expansion. However, 2008 put the brakes on this evolution, and as said, even when the pandemic started and began to affect all parts of society, we still had not fully recovered.
Regarding global results, the two main negative effects of the financial crisis have been the cuts to acquisitions budgets, meaning fewer new books and/or other media, and resulting low morale among staff.
To share some figures as an indication, public libraries, which make up 63% of the total number of Spanish libraries, had an average budget cut of 36% between 2008 and 2012.
Since then, economic investment in libraries has stalled, and collections are therefore not as attractive as they were in the past. There has also been a change in the habits of library users, with a 6.1% decrease in borrowing, mainly accounted for by audio-visual, sound recordings, and periodicals (due to subscriptions being cancelled) while there has been a slight increase in the lending of books.
Of course, the decrease in the lending of audio and visual media can be explained by changes in consumer patterns when it comes to music, where physical media has now been replaced by access and downloads via the Internet.
Regarding e-books lending, other than a few exceptions, there is an electronic server platform called E-Biblio, a joint project by the Ministry of Culture and the Autonomous Communities Library Authorities, which was created after the crisis to deliver electronic loans to public libraries. It is a collection of about 28 000 eBooks and journals.
Despite the impacts on collections, and the resulting focus among librarians on the wider results of cuts and changing habits, it is nonetheless the case that in Spain, we have seen an increase in library visitor numbers.
To understand this, we can look at one of the most difficult consequences of the 2008 – the explosion in unemployment. Even before COVID-19, a large proportion of the population of Spain was unemployed, a hangover from the crisis over a decade ago. This had, by April 2014, left joblessness at 25.1% among adults and 53.5% among young adults.
For the thousands and thousands of people affected, the reading rooms of our libraries offered a warm and comfortable place to relax. Our internet services also became invaluable. This is clear from the municipal survey assessment year after year in Barcelona for example.
The demand for library services has grown steadily and there has been an exponential increase in users. Visits have increased by approximately 20.5%. The number of registered users has almost doubled, going from 8.2 million in 2008 to 15.2 million in 2015.
In summary, librarians felt and still feel unhappy because of the limited resources for building collections, and the expectation that they should simply absorb the work of their colleagues who were let go and never came back to libraries. Nevertheless, users and citizens were and are still very proud of our library system, giving good reviews of this in evaluation surveys of public services.
How did libraries respond during the crisis itself in your country?
Library staff in general were in shock. It was a matter of personal loss because it affected job conditions and the social safety net. Concerned about how the financial crisis had hit Spanish libraries after 2008, the library sector was driven to evaluate the results and indicators regarding collection building and high use of the libraries services but also to provide tools to determine the social value of the library.
A methodology was therefore defined to demonstrate that libraries contribute to a competitive economy and to provide library managers with arguments to defend their position against competition from other sectors that libraries are an investment and not an expense.
Nevertheless, as we know, a financial crisis can be solved if we react and are brave. However, it can be made worse if problems around e-reading and copyright remain unaddressed. We need decision-makers to help in achieving a balance between the right to read and copyright, to ensure that library budgets have the impact they should.
What sort of activities did libraries in your country carry out to defend their funding?
The phenomenon of such an enormous increase in library use, together with the need to demonstrate clearly the social value added by public libraries drove the Public Libraries Network of Barcelona Province to implement the study: The Public Value of Municipal Libraries Network of Barcelona Province.
This in study aimed to measure how much, financially speaking, public libraries contribute to society. This is because library services need to be seen as an investment and never as an expense.
Alongside the Spanish National Libraries Council, we decided to include this important issue in the Strategic Plan of the Council, establishing a Strategic Expert Group for the Socio-Economic Impact of Libraries in Society, coordinated by FESABID, (Spanish Federation of Libraries, Archives, Documentation and Museums Associations). This included key players from the library sector such as REBIUN, the Spanish Universities Libraries Network, representatives of public libraries such as the Barcelona Public Libraries Network as well as experts from several Spanish regions and the Spanish Ministry of Education Culture and Sports, working together to shed light on this important point of focus.
FESABID, in fulfilment of one of the priority objectives set out in the 2013 Activity Plan (Line of Action 2 — Study and Analysis) kindly kept up the momentum of this important cooperative work. In particular, it coordinated the study after seeing how the financial crisis was changing the face of the Spanish Library System, and the need to manage a new scenario where libraries were facing decreased budgets.
The Federation started its action by working on a cooperative project to create a tool kit for librarians and, most importantly, to keep them and society aware of the importance of investment in libraries and information centres. The result was the incredibly useful and necessary Study of the Economic and Social Value of Libraries, which had two main objectives:
- To define a methodology that convincingly demonstrates that libraries contribute to contemporary competitive economies.
- To provide library managers with arguments and information with which to defend their position against competition from other sectors that have already defined methodologies that measure, to a greater or lesser extent, their contribution to society in monetary terms.
The main goal of this study was to provide evidence-based facts and data about the value of information services and libraries in particular, and their contribution to society and the national economy.
In short, libraries are not an expense; libraries are an investment – a profitable investment in the economic field and there is a very positive return to society as a whole, demonstrating that libraries are contributing to building stronger societies.
What was the impact of the crisis on the funding sources that support libraries in your country?
As I have already mentioned, unfortunately Spanish Public Libraries had an average budget cut of 36% between 2008 and 2012. The most serious effect of these huge cuts was the 43.6 % decrease in purchases for their collections. The biggest cut was in audio-visual material, which accumulated a decrease of 43.6% between 2008 and 2012, mostly in audio-visual and electronic records. A significant reduction was also observed in book collections, which were a third less compared to the increase in 2008.
The cuts in spending on book collections are in my point of view, the most unfortunate result of the effects of the financial crisis. In effect, the question was raised of how librarians can provide information, books, and materials for our users if we do not have enough money for collection building?
Regarding staff, public libraries in 2012 had nearly 600 (594) fewer employees than in 2010. This has had a very negative impact on employee morale throughout the library community in our country. We all know that it is demoralising to be expected to work harder in return for a lower wage (due to salary cuts to all civil servants), not to mention less investment in employees through training and less vacation entitlement.
These circumstances have led in many cases to a sense of panic among employees, most of them civil servants with low salaries. In Spain, the average reduction of the number of employees in libraries was been 20%.
In terms of the average number of employees per library point of service, the number is 1.91 employees today, compared with 2.5 per point of library service in 2008. This is even lower than the figure in 2002, when the average was 2.0 employees per library service point.
What actions and arguments worked most effectively in your country and internationally?
I guess that any single action and argumentation to demonstrate the social value of library services is always a good way to advocate for libraries.
During a financial crisis, when people more than ever need free public services, this is the time to convince governments that libraries are an investment on social development.
In my point of view, talking to decision-makers in a language they understand is a good tip. Librarians are used to using our own jargon, with technical words that do not help us to find a common understanding with decision-makers, welfare civil servants, and other social agents.
So, after seeing the effect of the strategy carried out by FESABID in which we decided to talk in a clear economic way, demonstrating the social value of libraries in Spain and the repercussions at international level, I can say this was the correct way.
Library Associations in many countries showed interest in FESABID’s methodology and this was an opportunity to talk about the Spanish Library System and FESABID internationally. Therefore, an executive report of the study was translated into English and French. I had the opportunity to give presentations abroad about how we tried to help libraries to advocate showing not only the positive results, but also the social side of investment in economics.
FESABID was able to deliver an easy-to-manage tool that libraries could use to advocate in their own municipalities, to argue that their library service was more than a public service open to people. Libraries could demonstrate, with numbers, a social return understood by their authorities.
What recommendations do you have for library advocates following the COVID-19 pandemic?
From the first day of quarantine, on March 12, 2020, all libraries in Spain were shut down. From the National Library to the smallest of the libraries in our territory. Even more, large hospitals converted their libraries into ICU intensive care units to increase the number of beds and to accommodate hundreds of people who had to be admitted.
This situation was a catastrophe, as even when re-opening became possible, it was under very restrictive quarantine regulations, and only in the summer. For example, many could only serve users by appointment only.
One option was to rely more on the E-Biblio service. However, general access to this service was still poor in the months before the pandemic; in 2019 it received just under 4.8 million visits. While there was an increase in membership once authorities made it easier for citizens to register directly using their National ID card number, millions of inhabitants have still not registered.
University students had better luck and could access digital academic libraries. However, in Spain, 18% of homes do not have access to internet today, or just have data access through their mobile phone. Therefore, millions of people were isolated in their homes during lockdown, without access to any library resources or internet access.
Unfortunately, we are facing an increase in the digital divide because today, faced with this new scenario and more than ever, we need all households, all students, all people to be connected to the internet. Without connectivity, contact is not possible, access to information is not possible, and even less, access to knowledge is not feasible.
From my point of view, this pandemic, which is a terrible global health and economic crisis, also constitutes an opportunity for librarians. An opportunity to innovate, to change our mindset. An opportunity to reinvent ourselves by coming up with creative ways to deliver our services online, services that before the pandemic, for the most part, were face-to-face.
Although in a crisis it is difficult to remain calm and not lose sight of the vision and mission of our service, the analysis of emerging needs in this pandemic is more necessary than ever. As librarians, we have to focus our advocacy on asking for digital and virtual library services on the one hand, but on the other – and most importantly –contribute to advocacy for a public internet connection system, or for subsidised connectivity for those who need it, given that an internet connection nowadays is an essential utility. The more we can do to campaign for connectivity, the better we will be able to provide access to our users.
See also our interview with Claudia Lux, IFLA President 2007-2009.