Wednesday, January 12, 2011

A Few Words on Winter Weather

I work in a small rural library system tucked in the Appalachians. This has been an especially difficult winter and has opened my eyes to the challenges that weather can create for a public library. I was spoiled in Syracuse because they city is prepared for mountains of snow and their infrastructure is trained to provide and pay for plowing and salt. However, in my new location the harsh winters are not the norm (thanks, Global Warming) and I think they are unsure about how much money and resources to plan for.

There are many things to take into consideration and I'd love to hear how other libraries handle inclement weather. I think most considerations fall into two categories: staff and service.

Consider your staff's geography.
While my library is located on a main street that receives regular plow attention, most of our employees live "over the mountain" in areas that receive much more snowfall and much less maintenance. Additionally, our branches are in rural areas of the county that get hit harder by snow and ice.

Consider your staff's age.
There's a lot of talk about the graying of the library profession. In my library system most employees are over the age of 40 and a large portion of them are in their 50s/60s. I am terrified that they will fall and hurt themselves in bad weather, especially because our parking lot is a sloppy nightmare. We have enough issues with gout, fatigue and ongoing diseases like cancer that I am convinced we're tempting fate whenever we're open in an ice storm. It sounds dramatic, but I feel like their blood will be on our hands!

Consider your staff's resources.
Most of my library administrators drive SUVs, which is a luxury that many cannot afford. Sure, I can make it in because I have a four wheel drive Subaru, but it's not as easy for someone driving a 1995 Ford Escort. Also, our policies are complex in regards to using leave time due to weather, so many employees can lose time and money if they can't make it in versus no loss of time if the library is officially closed.

Consider your service goals.
Library's function to support their communities. If a library feels strongly that they should be open come Hell or high water, then so be it. However, if a library is open in a community where everyone stays inside on cloudy days, it may be a wiser use of resources to close. It can be frustrating for staff to risk their lives to come in and then have two patrons in an entire day.

Consider your service resources.
Municipal resources are dwindling, which includes money for salt, plowing, and general budgets. We've all read about the cutbacks and closings impacting libraries across the nation. Should a library be open in a blizzard if they can't afford to plow or salt the parking lot? There can also be issues where a library is both autonomous but also a government agency; my director can choose to remain open when other county agencies are closed, which I think muddies the waters in several areas.

I'm not saying that a library should close every time a flake falls, but I also think it's not unreasonable to find a balance between providing great service and expecting your employees to have a sleigh and reindeer to get them to work.



  1. I have been really frustrated by our snow policy as well, especially after living somewhere where it was really clear what to do. I lose vacation time if I freak out and stay home (like I did yesterday for no reason).
    I don't have any answers for you - I just wanted to vent, too! I think you point out some important considerations, though, when constructing your snow/winter weather policy.

  2. The weather closings have been strange for me as well. I'm on the other side of the mountain from Yogurt Moon and your list of considerations are pretty much on the money.

    I've been told that last year our library was more of a hell or high water, well snow drift, kind of place but during that year there were a number of problems with staff unable to make it home and a car accident. This year they have been much more cautious. Which everyone else meets with a sigh of relief.