Jul 232011

Your cultural heritage-related job has a rising probability of going away.  Or, if you’re looking for such a job, you could have a tough time finding one.

Budget, by chbrenchley, on Flickr

Budget, by chbrenchley, on Flickr

Saying this goes against my native optimism, but in surveying the current political landscape, it’s hard to come to a different conclusion.  Most libraries, archives, museums, historical societies and related institutions depend to some extent–often a rather large extent–on government revenue streams. State and local funding is already being cut back all over the country.

A saving grace have been federal dollars.  Budgets for federal collecting institutions such as the National Archives and Records Administration and Government Printing Office have been steady, as have budgets for funders such as the Institute for Museum and Library Services and National Endowment for the Humanities.

Much of this money goes directly to providing jobs for librarians, archivists, curators and other related professions.  Jobs all over the country, in places big and small.  Jobs for long-time professionals and jobs for those just starting out.

Out of work, by peretzpup, on Flickr

Out of work, by peretzpup, on Flickr

But, to paraphrase Bill Clinton, the days of reliable federal dollars for culture are over.  Regardless of the outcome for the current battle over raising the debt limit, deep cuts in federal discretionary spending are inevitable.  The only question is how deep and how soon.  News reports about the current negotiations between Congress and the White House toss around various ideas for trillion-dollar cuts without many details; you can be sure, however, that discretionary spending for cultural heritage entities–while comparatively tiny, will take proportionally big hits to cushion blows to more popular programs such as medicare and ostensibly more important activities such as national defense.

I’m basing this prediction partly on a gut feeling and partly on news reports.  The news has been plenty grim.  Congress is looking to cut NEH by 13 percent in the 2012 budget, “nearly double what the House panel proposed to cut from the Interior Department and other agencies covered by the spending legislation.” The House is looking to cut the Government Printing Office 2012 budget by 16 percent.  And the coming debt-ceiling cuts could be on top of the annual budget reductions.

The popular zeitgeist also seems oriented toward distributed individual action rather than big, centralized institutional solutions.  Social media is all about empowering the individual, and innovation is now commonly seen as working from “edge to core” or through activities such as crowdsourcing.  The latter approach even extends to funding: Kickstarter has raised millions of dollars for a host of creative projects.  Plus there is, needless to say, very little enthusiasm to raise taxes in support of government programs.

All this will add up to big job losses in an already tough labor market.  This will be terrible for older and mid-career workers, but I also worry about the next generation who may have a very hard time finding work that pays a living wage.  This is bad for them, of course, but it’s also really bad for whole sector, which desperately needs their energy, enthusiasm and engagement.

We may be facing a lost generation of librarians, archivists and curators.

Two things could prevent this.  The first is that market-based economic models such as Kickstarter will ramp way up to offset the loss of government funding, which would be fantastic.  The second is that I’m completely wrong in this prognostication, which normally would be a bummer, but in this case would also be fantastic.

So, go Kickstarter.  And, for good measure, here’s to being wrong.