Monday, June 15, 2009


Take a quick glance at the Web site of the American Library Association, and you'll get a sense of how very dire the state of funding for public libraries has become. Across the country budget shortfalls are threatening the ability of public libraries to keep their doors open. The overall funding picture is grim.

Yet these shortfalls come at a time when public libraries are experiencing record usage. According to the ALA's 2009 State of America's Libraries Report, nearly 1.4 billion visitors checked out more than 2 billion items in 2008. The Canadian Broadcasting Corporation has reported a substantial increase in usage in Canada. At a time when economic pressures make buying a book, upgrading a computer or even picking up a daily newspaper a meaningful expenditure, many people are rediscovering the rich resources of their public libraries.

Because of limited funds, however, it falls upon library managers to be more rigorous than ever about how they spend their money. Public libraries are, after all, taxpayer-supported institutions, and there are plenty of people keeping an eye open for any inappropriate use of funds.

A reader in New England has such a concern, even though she herself is a librarian. She's concerned that the longtime director of her city's public library may be using library funds inappropriately.

The director relies on public transportation to get to and from work. When the weather is particularly rough, however, she calls the library's custodian _ who is, of course, a city employee _ and has him drive the library van to pick her up and bring her to work. It's about a 10-mile round trip.

In the past the library trustees have offered to use library trust funds to pay for the director's transportation in inclement weather, but she has declined.

"The city probably doesn't know what the director is doing," my reader writes. "Most of the library staff are aware of this arrangement and disapprove, but feel powerless to do anything."

She wants to know if the director is behaving ethically and, if not, what can be done.

If the director had accepted the trustees' offer to pay for her transportation during inclement weather, there would be no ethical issue here. Taxpayers might groan about footing the bill, but the director would be in the clear as long as the arrangement was out in the open and accounted for.

But by turning down the offer and then making use of a library vehicle, and thereby incurring city expense, she is putting public services to private use without the consent of the library's trustees. And, yes, that's unethical.

The right thing for the director to do would be to inform the trustees that she is finding it difficult to get to work on some bad-weather days, and that she would like to reconsider their offer of a transportation allowance as part of her compensation.

Chances are that they would agree. Perhaps they'd even want to continue the current arrangement, which would make it perfectly acceptable. The key is not how she gets to work, but that any expenditure of public funds be aired and approved in advance.

If nobody on her staff can convince her to do this, or feels comfortable in making the attempt, then my reader _ ideally with a group of fellow employees _ should do the right thing and inform the board of the situation. It is the responsibility of the trustees to make sure that taxpayers' funds are being used appropriately and are being accounted for properly.

And, of course, the library staffers are also taxpayers and shouldn't be afraid to look out for their own interest.

c.2009 The New York Times Syndicate (Distributed by The New York Times Syndicate)


Bill Jacobson said...

The issue is a little muddier than you make it sound, Jeffrey. Surely as library director, she has discretion on how to best utilize the resources that the board has placed at her disposal and use of the van and custodian to get her to work is at best a (very minor) abuse of discretion. It could easily be rationalized as an attempt to limit library expenses since the minor outlay of maybe a gallon of gas per roundtrip places the library in better position of having a director available during this inclement weather that it otherwise would not.

However a forward looking director and board would be expected to tackle the issue for future occurrences and establish guidelines to prevent abuse and dispel the impression of favoritism.

This behavior is mildly unethical but at best will get the director a slap on the wrist since it is the equivalent of taking office supplies home. The reporting librarian, who it sounds like reports to the library director, ought to take heed in turning her boss in though. Whistleblowing is noble but often comes with repercussions. Is this mild saving of public funds really worth souring a work relationship or losing her job over? I would recommend letting this mild infraction pass... let she amongst you who is blameless throw the first stone.

Bill Jacobson said...

The above is WIlliam Jacobson, Cypress, CA

"Everyone is doing it" is no basis for doing it yourself

Years ago, after I had left my job as a magazine editor and took a significant cut in pay to become an assistant professor at a liberal ...