Executive Librarians Speak

It’s easy to get caught up in the many details of budgeting, but for the Executive Librarian, the most important issues in successful budget proposal planning are community issues – how to best serve our constituents.  Consider the following to ensure that you create and present a successful budget:

  • The budget needs to draw the link between the library’s Mission and the money, so budget planning must find its origins in the library's strategic plan.   This helps to avoid a complete reinvention each year and provides a consistent yardstick against which to measure your success.
  • In these tough economic times, remember the following as you formulate your plan:
    • Organizational survival depends (not just for libraries) on adding value to the community.
    • Severing access to information from a physical place (via the Internet) and physical objects (i.e., books) has created major shifts in the library paradigm;  not only staff, but the public has had to change the way they view the importance of libraries to the community.
    • Even community members who never set foot in the building are your patrons.  For example, studies have shown that libraries increase sales at nearby businesses.
    • Every library budget is about the community’s youth – libraries and schools work together to encourage lifelong learning.
  • Budget preparation is a year-round process.  Keep abreast of the following:
    • Is there a theme in recent community actions (e.g. dropout prevention for the school system, public safety, etc.) which the library can help to address?
    • How has the community been using the library?  What feedback have you had from patrons on how well the library has been serving the community's needs?
    • What is the current political and economic climate and which political leaders are setting the priorities? 
  • Create and maintain a set of historical measurements to utilize in evaluating past performance and in projecting needs and abilities into the future and for comparison with similar library systems.
  • For the budget presentation, you need to anticipate and prepare for tough questions:
    • "What could you do with half of that?"   Be prepared to answer questions in a positive way.
    • “Tell us what happened when we cut the book budget two years ago.  Why are you trying to get back to that level?"  Be ready to show how past budget cuts have impacted services and to demonstrate why restoring cut line items will improve the library.
  • Use every tool at your disposal to show both the need and the support from patrons:
    • Take a picture (literally) of the 200 people waiting for the library to open.  This type of evidence will help to show that usage is sometimes increased, even (or especially) when budgets are being cut.

Cautionary Tales

  • Never become so invested in the details of the budgeting process that you are caught off guard by a big-picture question.
  • Statistics, by themselves, do not tell the whole story:
    • Cultural differences may become blurred and need to be highlighted.
    • Service utilization, across demographic areas, tells different stories.  The impact of a book being checked out in an affluent neighborhood is different from the impact of the same book being checked out at a branch where the primary language is not English.
  • Some years, there simply is NO money - no amount of pressure or support will be able to change this fact:
    • Pressure applied on elected officials at the wrong time (by staff, or by customers) can have a detrimental effect.
    • Do not be drawn into the trap of wondering aloud why some city services are not being cut with the same knife as the library's.
    • Supporters should voice their appreciation and opinions (positive or negative) all the time, not only when there is money available (or unavailable).
  • Be sure to demonstrate to the budgeting authority that you continuously strive for improvement, not just during tough times. 

Best Practices from the Viewpoint of Executive Librarians

Within the Library Community:

  • Forming panels of library administrators to advise on spending streams creates an environment of teamwork.
  • Brown-bag budgeting sessions with senior team members can be very illuminating.
  • Foster library ecosystem thinking among administrators - keep them thinking about the system as a whole, rather than focusing too closely on their own area of responsibility.
  • Help administrators to think like the budgeting authority/decision makers: how will what you are proposing "pay off"?
  • Look for opportunities to build cooperative purchasing agreements.

Outside the Library:

  • Utilize Friends groups:
    • To teach patrons about the best ways to communicate with elected officials,
    • To keep the public informed about the library's important events and organizational changes.
  • Utilize patrons:
    • To provide you with feedback and support; it is a critical component of the year-round budgeting process,
    • To offer feedback to elected officials all year long, not just during budget season.  Effective communication between customers and elected officials should reflect the year-round nature of the budgeting process - don't wait, communicate!
  • Keep your budgeting authority up to date on what's happening at the library.
    • Library Trustees (especially those representing the governing body) are a critical way of keeping elected officials informed about the library.
    • Request that the governing body include time in their regular meeting agenda each month for a report by the Library Director.  This prevents the feeling that “the only time we ever hear from you is when you want something.”
  • In some cases, early distribution of budget summary information (e.g. usage trending, connection to political priorities, etc.) can be very helpful.
  • Maintain good relationships with your vendors.
    • When times get tough, your vendors will appreciate knowing that they won't stay that way - things will improve.
    • If a cut has to be made, be prepared to do it.

10 Things I Know to be True About Budgeting for Libraries

Budget Presentations Homepage