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Effective library budgeting

Another excerpt from my revision of The Indispensable Librarian. And on one of my favorite topics - budgeting. (Did I just see your eyes glaze over? Shame on you!) 


Educational funding is a “zero sum game.” School districts’ have a finite amount of money in their budgets to spend on programs and have reached a level of funding that the public is reluctant to substantially increase. Regardless of how much your principal or school board may support your library, they simply may not have extra money to allocate toward it. Does this mean no additional funds for your program?

            Not at all. When working a zero sum situation, you can ask that money be taken away from other programs and given. This, however, puts many of us outside our comfort zone. Aren’t librarians really “givers” of resources, skills, information, time, and effort? Fighting for funding, especially if it means butting heads with department chairs, band directors, coaches, custodians, or union reps, certainly feels like being a “taker” instead. And threatening the funding of a program that is near and dear to another educator is not the best way to make friends.

            But librarians have an ethical obligation to work for fiscally well-supported programs. If we believe deep in our hearts what we are doing is in the very best interest of our students and community; that spending what is necessary for an effective library program is better than buying new textbooks for science, adding saxophone to the band; or creating smaller class sizes has less impact that a well-funded library, we have no choice to enter the budget battle.

            You need two psychological weapons when fighting to make your program a budget priority: a thick skin and a deep-felt mission. Without them, you’ll get eaten alive; with them, you can accomplish anything.

            Strong feelings and fearlessness must be supported by a strong rationale for your budget. Every school budget committee, not just the library’s, needs to be asking serious questions like: 

  • What programs teach the skills that will be vital to tomorrow’s citizens?
  • What programs, skills, and attributes does your community believe are essential?
  • How many teachers and students will benefit from or be hurt by a particular spending decision?
  • Are there other sources of funds for activities that could be considered “non-essential?”
  • How might a budget decision affect the school’s climate?
  • Is there research to support the effectiveness of a program or specific spending decision?
  • How much budgeting is being done simply for sentimental reasons, out of tradition, or for convenience?

As librarians, we need to do our homework. Our budgets must be specific, goal driven, and assessable. They must be both accurate and easy to understand. They need to be supported by research and sound reasoning.

            Others in your organization should not spend funds that could be better spent by you. Period. Librarians must learn to be effective “takers” if we are to have the resources be good “givers.”

Librarians as effective budgeters

Good budgeting is not magic. Librarians with good budgets aren’t just “lucky” or work in districts with lots of money. Librarians who practice skillful budgeting techniques get bigger budgets. Period.

Effective library budget makers:

  1. Submit budget proposals even when they not been requested or the chances of it being fully funded are slim.
  2. Counter the argument that the free Internet will replace libraries, books and purchased online information sources.
  3. Describe the “consequences” of an under-funded budget in concrete terms.
  4. Construct outcome-driven budgets and are specific in supporting curricular and school improvement goals
  5. Recognize the sources for budget dollars and who controls those dollars
  6. List the areas for which I need to budget
  7. Create a maintenance budget
  8. Report to budget decision-makers how past budget dollars have been spent
  9. Know how an advisory committee can help build budget support.
  10. I know the importance of serving in school, professional and political organization leadership roles.
  11. Use technology to improve their budgeting and communication skills
  12. Weed.     
  13. Understand the concept of sustainability


Any hints or tips for obtaining more resources for your library as I expand on each of these ideas in the rest of the chapter?


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Reader Comments (6)

Hi Doug,
When making purchasing decisions it is important to keep the collection development policy along with curriculum in mind. It is also important to allocate resources to building different areas of a collection every year.
I make it a point to not only introduce new books to staff and students but also to the administrator to keep them interested in the library. In fact he comes and checks out books along with the students and they love seeing that.
We do the usual book fairs and grant writing to get more funding for the library.

January 23, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterRati Singhal

This is a very timely post Doug. We are working on our budget proposal for next year and are feeling overwhelmed. I would love to see examples of successful budget proposals. We want outcome-based instructional goals, but our money people want a list of supplies. Anyone want to share? (dollar amounts can be private, of course)

January 23, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterKim

I'm going out to do a presentation in a rural school division in which, like many rural school divisions, library budgets don't seem to be a priority. You've made many valid points that I'll take with me when I go. I certainly believe that if you don't ask (with good reasons to back yourself up) you'll never receive.

January 23, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterJo-Anne Gibson

One can also be aware of the programs that the library runs which give back (financially or otherwise) to the library. For example, a book fair that is sponsored by a particular publishing company could give vouchers back to the library for the products that the publisher produces. If one can buy a product with the vouchers, than that is money that is saved for another library resource.

January 23, 2012 | Unregistered Commenterrpglibrarian

Doug- recently on Lm_net there was a request for a source for the old budget of either one book per student per year and/or around $20 per book. Both of those numbers just sound so far from what I could get in my library where I usually take donations of books and pull from scholastic book sales in order to update my library. What is a more realistic formula to bring to our principles or even our Superintendents that will get our feet in the door for a regular budget (with the above formula being the eventual target)? Is there a better way to communicate to the powers that be what we need in a way that they will hear more then the dollar figure? Personally I always try and come from the point of view that I am a keeper of inventory- when money is given directly to staff there is no long term inventory of what is purchsed and things often "disappear". Not to mention that things are purchased on the whim and personality of whoever got the money and not on the overall needs of the whole school (don't get me started on the newest online programs that cost thousands of dollars in yearly fees that teachers aren't even using!). It hasn't worked with my newest principal but I have hope that it will work with my next one! :)

January 24, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterMO2L

Hi Rati,

Good points all. Thanks for sharing these. (The blog post was just a bit of introduction to the rest of the budgeting chapter which goes into detail on budgeting practices.)



If you are interested, you can find my budgeting handouts here:


Hi Jo-Anne,

Good to hear from you! Good luck with the workshops. I am always amazed by how many librarians don't even try putting a budget together!

If anything in these handouts above would be helpful to you, please use them:

All the best,


Thanks, RPG,

Our libraries get a nice selection of books for holding book fairs. These can be great supplemental sources of materials - I just hope they are not the mainstay of funding of programs.


Hi Maura,

Answering your questions is exactly what this chapter is about. (Still working on it.) In the meantime, please use the resources in the handouts to help answer some of your questions. Pay attention to the "maintenance" budget approach.

All the best,


January 28, 2012 | Registered CommenterDoug Johnson

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