Library experiences

Strategies for Surviving a Staffing Crisis

strategy” by Sean MacEntee  is licensed under CC BY 2.0.

Library staff are no strangers to budget and staffing reductions. Most of us have way too much experience doing more with less, covering unfilled positions, and rigging solutions out of the digital equivalent of chewing gum and bailing wire, because we can’t afford to buy all the tools we need. In the last two years, my department at Northern Arizona University’s Cline Library operated with roughly half the usual amount of staff. In this post, I’ll share a few strategies that helped us get through this challenging time.

First, a quick introduction. My department, Content, Discovery & Delivery services, includes the digital services unit (formerly library technology services) as well as collection management (including electronic resources management), acquisitions, cataloging, physical processing, interlibrary loan and document delivery, and course reserves. We are a technology-intensive department, both as users and implementers/supporters of technology.

Here are some of the strategies we used to cope with extremely limited staffing and the departure of a number of key staff with significant institutional knowledge, most of whom we were not allowed to replace.


  1. Collaboration with other departments for cross training and mutual support. We worked with Information Technology Services (ITS) to re-evaluate the library’s role versus that of central IT in a centralized IT environment (for more information on IT centralization, see my co-authored posts for the LITA blog, IT Centralization: Impact on Academic Libraries part 1 and part 2). ITS was able to take on some additional responsibilities that were formerly managed by library IT staff, freeing us up to focus on library-specific hardware, applications, and services. We also worked with other departments in the library to redistribute work. Subject librarians took an active role in collection development, including leading an initiative to reduce our electronic resources and serials budget by about $500,000. Overnight staff in User Services & Experience helped with interlibrary loan processing. Dean’s Office staff took over shepherding licenses through the university contracting process. Cross-training and detailed documentation are essential to make this strategy work well.
  2. Staff learned new skills and responsibilities and gained broader knowledge of processes that had been opaque to them previously. Some department staff picked up tasks from departing staff. As mentioned above, subject librarians became more involved with collections. That change was particularly valuable, because they gained deeper insight into the collection budget, the packaging of information products, and license terms and conditions. That experience paves the way for them to have a more active role in collection development going forward, something they had wanted for years. If you take this approach, it’s critical to document new assignments in position descriptions and performance appraisals. Also, compensate employees for increased responsibilities if you possibly can. Work with your HR department to determine options (temporary or permanent reclass, bonus, raise, etc.) available at your institution.
  3. We assigned additional, higher-level work to student workers. This strategy can be controversial and is often impossible in unionized workplaces (which we are not). We had little choice under the circumstances. In some cases, work that had been performed by staff was well-suited for students and will likely continue to be student work going forward. In other cases, students were (and in some cases still are) doing staff-level work. That’s not ideal, given the turnover among student workers, but it can benefit both the student and the library if managed carefully. In one case, we hired a former student worker as classified staff once she graduated. She was able to meet the minimum requirements for the position because of the higher-level work she had been assigned as a student. As with strategy 1 above, cross-training and detailed documentation are essential to ensure continuity as students leave and are replaced.
  4. Ruthless prioritization. We stopped doing some things. We reduced the time spent on others. To do that, we used the library and university strategic plans and the library’s operating plan as guides for prioritization. We also worked with library leadership to ensure that they would support our changes and that those changes wouldn’t have a negative impact on other library units. When staffing is inadequate, some things simply will not get done. It’s much better to be intentional about what falls off the plate than to let it happen randomly.

What I learned from leading a department through this crisis

I learned two valuable lessons from leading staff through this challenging time:

  1. Prioritize communication and interpersonal relationships. It’s so easy to get mired in the to-do list and jump frantically from one task to another, but as someone in a leadership position, communication is one of—if not the—most important task on my list. Unfortunately, I didn’t always prioritize accordingly, and when I didn’t, problems happened. It’s critical to think about and share big-picture strategies, keep people apprised of the status of projects, and respond to questions and concerns promptly.
  2. A closely related lesson: support remaining staff. Do not just add more work and expect them to cope. Help them review their workloads and identify activities to drop or decrease. Be honest about whether or not you can compensate them for the additional and/or higher-level work. Especially if you can’t, consider other ways to maintain morale and help staff feel valued and supported. Recognize and celebrate successes, check in with people about how they are doing and what you can do to help. Listen carefully to what they tell you and be willing to adjust assignments and expectations based on the feedback you receive. Sometimes the task that is causing a staff member the most stress can be eliminated, automated, adjusted, or reassigned. Be willing to do those things.

Thanks to the current pandemic, many of us will have to cope with hiring freezes, furloughs, and yet more budget cuts. Many decisions and options will be taken away from us. Our power lies in how we respond and adapt. I hope the experience and lessons I’ve shared here give you some ideas to help you respond and adapt effectively.