Things I Never Learned in Library School: Waiting for Reimbursement, aka Libraries Must Fund Their Programming
Earlier this week, a post about reimbursement came across my Twitter timeline proclaiming that reimbursement is not an equitable system (https://twitter.com/readitrealgood/status/1015776354074288128). Like many things that come up in my timeline, I hadn’t really thought about the inherent classism involved in reimbursement, even though I had lived with it myself in my professional career. The truth is, many people (most people) do not have the discretionary funds needed to spend their personal funds for work related expenses and wait to be reimbursed.
At one of the libraries that I worked at, and remember I’ve worked for four different library systems in two different states, we had to pay for all library programming out of pocket and wait to be reimbursed by the Friends of the Library, a process that could take more than a month depending on where in the month your purchase occurred. As a YA Librarian I was required to do YA programs, but the library had no budget line or mechanism for paying for these programs. It was all done via reimbursement from the Friends of the Library. The only exception to this was if you booked an author or a performer, which meant you must do so far enough in advance to get all the correct paperwork filled out to have a check made out directly to the performer. And if you do any teen programming, you will understand that a lot of teen programming involves things like having to purchase craft supplies and food.
At this library, the school was within walking distance to the middle school, which meant that we had the traditional problem of a large influx of energetic, hungry teens right after school and we had to find a way to meet their needs and maintain a safe, suitable environment for non-teen patrons who wanted to use the public library. Thus, our after school Teen CoffeeHouse was born. We opened up our meeting every Tuesday afternoon for teens wanting to play video games, do crafts and have snacks. Teens are very hungry after school. This program was one of my most successful programs ever, and in its height we would have near 100 teens on every Tuesday. This meant that every week I had to go to the local grocery store and use my own personal bank account to buy snacks for a library program and wait to be reimbursed. At the end of each month, depending on how many teens we had, I could have personally been waiting for anywhere from $200 to $300 in reimbursement.
At every previous system that I had worked in, programming was expected and a part of the annual budget. There were mechanisms in place for purchasing supplies for programs. Not all of the different ways were easy or convenient, but they didn’t rely on me having my own personal funds in my own personal bank account. I can not stress to you what an unfair and undue hardship this was, expecting me to use my personal funds in order for me to be successful at the requirements of my job. I was barely making it before, then I suddenly found myself pregnant and raising an infant. I was no longer making it paycheck to paycheck, there were zero funds to do things like by craft materials and food for a library program.
I had always thought that this library system’s process was an anomaly. I campaigned long and hard to change the system, because it was simply unsustainable. Eventually, it was in fact changed, and I was forever grateful. But I was surprised to learn when tweeting about this story how many libraries still expect their staff to pay for work related expenses, including programming, out of their own pockets and wait for reimbursement. Many people tweeted at me or DMed me to let me know that they too had to do this at one time or another, many more to say they were doing this presently, and they were barely making it. Only one person replied that they had to do this but they didn’t really mind because they got a bunch of extra bonus points on their personal credit card.
This is an injustice to library staff that must be halted. I was disheartened to learn how many of my peers were be asked to suffer this very real hardship from their employers.
If libraries want to have programming, then libraries must fund programming in their annual budgets. The money has to be there. I understand that libraries have complicated budgets and a variety of laws that regulate how, where and why money is spent and how that spending has to be recorded. Money in libraries is a difficult subject in the best of times, and these are not the best of financial times for libraries. But the truth is, the library has to have a way to do the things the library says it wants to do up front.
Then, libraries must have mechanisms in place for staff to make any purchasing that may be needed to be the resources for programming. That means that library staff members must be able to order or purchase supplies at the onset using library funds. It is not reasonable to expect staff to use personal funds to perform the daily duties of their job. Staff are paid for their work, they should not be expected to turn around and use their hard earned personal funds to do the work. We’ll save conversations about how most library staff are underpaid and underemployed for a future conversation.
If you are a library who is asking staff to do x, y or z and using that rubric to evaluate whether or not they are effective at their job, then you must provide the necessary tools for them to actually be effective at their job. Evaluate what your library’s goals are, whether or not the tools are in place for staff to be successful in meeting these goals, and make adjustments if necessary. If you are a library who demands library programming but doesn’t have a way to fund that programming up front, then you need to either stop doing library programming or put the mechanisms in place to fund those programs up front using library monies.
And if you are a library employee who does programming, this is another reminder of why it is very important that library staff never use their own money or time to do library programming. Administrators need to have a true account and understanding of how much staff time and how much library funding is necessary to do successful library programming. When we take work home and do it on our own time or purchase supplies and donate them because we want to do a program that is bigger than our budgets, administrators don’t understand the true cost, have unreasonable expectations, and don’t provide the staff and funding we need because they don’t understand the real level of need. It seems weird to say, but donating our time and money hurts our patrons, because they don’t get the community investment from the library that they really need, it hurts our admin, because they don’t have the full picture to successfully do their job of developing budgets and maintaining adequate staffing levels, and it hurts our successors because we are establishing unreasonable goals that they will be evaluated by.
I know that libraries everywhere are facing money shortages and other challenges, I’m right there in the trenches with you. But our answers to these challenges can not be unfair to our staff, unfair to our patrons, and they shouldn’t cause more problems than they solve. Even in challenging times, we have to establish best practices for our staff and our community.
Filed under: Things I Never Learned in Library School
About Karen Jensen, MLS
Karen Jensen has been a Teen Services Librarian for almost 30 years. She created TLT in 2011 and is the co-editor of The Whole Library Handbook: Teen Services with Heather Booth (ALA Editions, 2014).
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