Library Issues
Editors: Ann P. Dougherty, Mountainside Publishing; Richard M. Dougherty, University of Michigan, Emeritus
Contributing Editors: Mignon Adams, University of the Sciences in Philadelphia; Larry Hardesty, Austin College; William Miller, Florida Atlantic University; Maureen Pastine, Temple University
Vol. 24, No. 4 March 2004

Budget Care for the Heart of the University:
Diet or Surgery?

by Sarah M. Pritchard

It’s a popular metaphor, but few people know what really goes into it, and administrators tend to think it’s a black hole. Libraries need to serve more students, support new disciplines, deploy innovative technologies, and expand or rebuild aging infrastructures. How can we convey forward movement and growth while also repeatedly taking large cuts to our operating budgets? There are only so many places to make these cuts, and no matter which way you slice it, some group won’t like it.

Institutional Anthropology

Each time there is a budget reduction, even at the same institution, the factors vary as to politics, strategy and timing. Library directors need active relationships with faculty leaders, campus-wide administrators and other constituencies to ensure the best outcomes from difficult situations. Library directors and faculty leaders need to be able to agree on major priorities, and to take into account the history of the institution. How the institution has traditionally dealt with budget matters, and how the library or other units were treated last time this happened, will have a lot to do with how new cuts are implemented. Is the library going to take the same percentage as other parts of campus? Will some parts of the budget be exempted from the calculations? Is it permanent or one-time, and who gets to decide?

Faculty. Since the faculty articulate the academic mission and formulate most of that area of policy, library directors should be seeking support from faculty leaders before major reductions are implemented. Gaining understanding early in the process for the options and alternatives, and ensuring that the choices follow academic priorities for the campus’ near-term programmatic directions, is one of the best ways to avoid public friction and second-guessing as changes are made.

What the library director wants from the faculty is awareness, informed involvement, and support for the library as key to instruction and research.

Administrators. Libraries are pretty bureaucratic and most library directors will go up the ladder to higher administration for a sense of how and when budget reductions will occur. The administration may have its own set of consultative campus committees for budget priorities, or it may not. It can work many ways but the worst way is when nobody will admit to how it is being done, or when a mechanism is announced and then not used. This is not a good time for it to be perceived that the senior administration is not backing up its department heads, or that the administration and the faculty are working at cross-purposes. What the library director wants from senior administrators is to be given as much warning and as much flexibility as possible in allocating the cut across budget categories.

Library Staff. The library staff occupy an interesting middle ground. Depending on the library’s internal supervisory and consultative structures, they may have a little or a lot of involvement in planning for reductions. Although staff are library employees, they are also independent actors who may help or hinder the library’s campus political relationships. Librarians can pursue their own faculty connections, or if they have faculty status, may exercise governance leadership outside the library. Clerical and technical staff may apply pressure through staff organizations, unions, or informal connections. To minimize divisiveness during these cutbacks, there needs to be more internal discussion than normal, although it may seem to some staff as if it is always too little and too fast.

What the library director seeks from the staff is their problem-solving ideas, their cooperation in carrying out difficult reductions, and their support in conveying a positive and unified sense of service to the campus.

Other Constituents. There are other constituencies who need to or want to have a say in library priorities: the student body, community and business users, donors and alumni, consortial partners. These stakeholders tend to focus on specific services and are less likely to agree on key trade-offs (e.g., hours versus collections); they may not be in a position to shape high-level academic or administrative policy. In a far-reaching crisis, it is worth the time to try to involve such groups since their advocacy can be valuable.

Communication and Advocacy

Good communication must be the central focus if the library is to come through reductions with some semblance of support and with library services, if not intact, then realistically aligned with campus thinking.

Committee deliberations are often closed because administrators want to avoid having faculty, students and staff jump to the wrong conclusions; however, unexplained delays can still be damaging. There are ways that one can at least talk about the stages of the process, the priorities and values that will be used, and the kinds of internal analyses being undertaken. Both formal bodies and informal networks need to be used; in fact sometimes the latter is all that is working, in some dysfunctional institutions. By using a lot of channels concurrently, and by keeping some amount of information flowing at all times, a library director can avoid feeling caught in a quiet vise.

Advance notice. At the earliest notice of cuts, often a year or more in advance, library directors can be working with staff, faculty and administrators on a joint strategy for the cuts themselves and for communication and priority-setting. Itemize every relevant committee in the library, the faculty senate, the top administration and the student government; which ones can be told what, in what order of precedence, with what level of publicity or confidentiality. Do donors and the community need to be informed? How will media inquiries be handled, and will the media be used as an advocacy tool? Much of this is dependent on the severity or unusualness of the situation.

Timing. The timing of various announcements is critical; we all know how bad it looks to have major budgetary decisions made during the summer, yet it happens all the time because of the common fiscal year changeover in late June. Other factors to be aware of include the timing of legislative hearings or boards of trustees’ meetings, and contract renewal deadlines (e.g., cuts made to serials or automated services may not take effect except at specified times). Some decisions are made too late to have any impact. Again, more communication is better than less; there needs to be a series of announcements at different stages so planning can progress. Manipulating the timing can either encourage or discourage discussion,

Media Involvement. How actively and publicly to raise the alarm on library budget cuts? It can be an especially risky tack to go to the media, whether the student paper or the local press. If it is seen as the library against the rest of the institution, it may paint administrators and faculty leaders into corners and pit constituencies against one another. If the goal is to mobilize a broader political campaign at the legislative level, public employees may be accused of stepping over the line. Nobody, however, wants to sit back and hide the cuts and pretend that nothing is going on until all of a sudden the library shuts its doors. If there’s a university-wide message, the library director can help get it out in targeted ways that seek support for the library while not assigning blame. Everyone is taking cuts, it’s not because the library is poorly run or wants an unfairly large piece of the pie.

Library Budget Primer for Those on the Outside

The stakeholders are lined up and the communication strategies are in place. Now, how does one start explaining the complex nature of library management? The basics known to insiders become much more public in times of cuts. Library directors may fear that revealing this may raise pointed questions and encourage micromanagement, but it’s essential to ensure mutual respect and future flexibility. Each major budget "chunk" can be explained in simple terms, but each is prone to myths and misunderstandings. Most library operating budgets can be divided into materials; staff (personnel costs); automation; and everything else. One can document the concrete effect of cuts in each area.


Monographs and serials are budgeted in different ways and offer different strategies for cutting. Monographs may be completely deferred for a short time, or paid through savings and one-time funds. Serials may be prepaid or acquired through consortial discounts, but incur significant annual increases whether print or electronic, and it’s difficult to restore gaps later. The impacts of cuts are:

• Fewer books purchased; more time to get things ordered if standing purchase plans are reduced.

• Elimination of serials subscriptions to print and electronic journals and databases.

• More fees to users for outside article delivery or book lending.

Personnel Costs

It’s hard to gain support for sustaining staff and salaries, and seeing what a large budget percentage this is can prompt narrow micro-suggestions. Impacts of cuts include:

• Longer lines at desks

• Fewer subject, language and technical support specialists

• Shorter hours at the whole library or at certain entrances and service points

• Closing a branch

• Fewer, larger, classes in information literacy

• Slower acquisition and cataloging of new books


This includes hardware, software, some networking, outside data and library utility services, vendor fees, and consortial costs. The way this shows on a budget sheet varies wildly and can be impossible to benchmark. Costs may be paid elsewhere in the university or by a consortium, and may be locked into long-term vendor contracts. Impacts of cuts may include:

• Old hardware and software , which diminishes performance and incurs greater support costs.

• Inability to deliver new types of electronic information.

• More direct fees to users if some consortial contracts cannot be sustained.

Everything else

This is a catch-all category but a big one: supplies, furniture, travel and training, maintenance, development, operations, etc. The impacts can be subtle and take longer to be seen, but may include:

• Poorer quality of maintenance in bathrooms and public areas.

• Broken furniture not repaired or replaced (do you know how many library chairs break annually?)

• Decline in staff knowledge and expertise if training and travel are significantly reduced.

Libraries undergoing building addition or renovation projects have to articulate the differences between capital and operating budgets: Faculty and students may ask, “so why is that new addition moving ahead, why can’t that money be used to pay for books or keep the library open on weekend nights?” In most institutions these funds come from quite different sources and cannot be commingled.

What works, What doesn’t

In each category there are different ways to handle reductions, and conflicting opinions will surface. Whether the library is facing short-term or long-term cuts will affect the strategies and the levels of risk managers are able to and willing to incur. (see Curzon). Some high profile, alarming cuts are more of a gambit than a genuine service plan; but when the reduction gets to 5 percent or more, almost everything gets alarming. Still, some things are not worth the trouble.

· Protecting special areas, as opposed to more generalized adjustments

This is common, but only sustainable in the short-term. Whether to protect serials at the expense of all else, or to freeze hiring in a category, one-sided or absolutist cuts can create long-term erosion and are hard to recoup later. Workload and the interrelated systems functioning of the library get skewed. These strategies do not truly admit the nature of investment needed in a complex information service.

· Cutting hours

This doesn’t save much unless one cuts entire days each week, or eliminates whole branches or service units. Trimming back the hours on weekends, for example, will only hurt students while saving the library a thousand dollars here and there. At an academic library, whether a residential campus or not, on-site use of the library for study is still critical to students even with the existence of electronic services and remote access.

· Closing branches

This can save only if that academic subject and faculty are also reduced. Else the materials still need to be bought and subject staff employed, space must be found for the collection in another library location, and costs incurred by the campus to repurpose vacated space. Note: branch closings are political minefields!

· Substituting the electronic version

Electronic services and materials have enormously improved the speed of service and the quantity of information. But the electronic version only saves money if the earlier counterpart is almost totally discontinued; and electronic materials and systems require ongoing technical planning and support. We may have virtual reference, but can we eliminate in-person reference desks? E-journals cost plenty, and some licenses are such that the savings from canceling the print equivalent is 25 percent or less of the full price. It’s not “all out there on the Internet,” and the difference between free and licensed online resources is marked. Costs mount not only for the content but to design the links and interfaces, ensure document delivery, digitize course materials on demand and the like.

· Deferring until things get better

Furniture, computer upgrades, publishing projects and some staff positions (in areas where there’s backup), can probably all wait except in special circumstances. Deferring the purchase of library materials will almost always mean that the items go out of print and are not ever acquired, or only at much higher costs. Deferred maintenance must be carefully assessed; maybe a recarpeting project can wait two years, but routine building upkeep can create real problems in safety and morale if neglected, and will cost more in the long run.

· Outsourcing

A hot button in many library environments, to staff this can mean either a helpful way to arrange an extra service, or the insidious elimination of an entire traditional department. Outsourcing helps in library acquisitions and cataloging, some automated services, and campus support areas like maintenance. It may not save money so much as reallocate from personnel to contracts, which in the long run saves on benefits. It takes good planning and oversight to do well and not waste money; defining goals and performance is crucial, and the workflow of core library areas may need to be redesigned. Once a key function is outsourced, future support for recreating that area in-house will probably be difficult to secure.

· Using consortia

Cooperative agreements are a mainstay of library services, supporting interlibrary lending, collective discounts on database contracts, shared automated catalog systems and more. Consortial agreements can increase access, leverage local specialties into effective regional coverage, merge low-use volumes in storage facilities and afford opportunities for staff training. Local priorities must help shape what will be acquired immediately and on-campus, and what will be secured through cooperative access. For the latter category, there are still fees and staff time to be invested. Savings don't occur overnight, but consortia can keep new costs down and generate innovative services.

· Layoffs and reclassifications

Personnel downsizing is the hardest management decision and causes long-term resentments and grievances. Outright layoffs are difficult except with student assistants and part-time or casual employees. Larger academic libraries can reduce through attrition, transfers and reassignments, unless cuts need to be made precipitously. Union contracts and personnel policies may make it convoluted as processes like seniority, bumping, and guaranteed rehires start to kick in.

The savings are significant monetarily, but for an institution that supports research and learning, the loss of expertise can be irreplaceable. Simplistic proposals like hiring people with a lower level of education, or using retirees as volunteers, don’t work in terms of performance and can cause problems with employee contracts or liability insurance. In responding to this kind of suggestion, documentation is needed on the high-level skills expected in reference, special collections and other functions.

· Revenue generation

Many libraries generate modest amounts of revenue through fines and copy services, but those are declining and never amounted to much in the first place. There is increased emphasis on more extensive development of external funding through fee-based services, grants, and gifts. While these are useful for targeting projects in special areas, they are unreliable for ongoing and core services.

ó Gifts and endowments: In a time of stringencies, gifts sustain a library’s distinctiveness, growth, and excitement over collections. But private individuals don’t want to fund operations and regular staff, and gifts may imply new commitments for services in a narrow area. Soliciting endowments for the future is important though the real payoff may not be for decades.

ó    Grants: Essential for innovation and collaboration especially at the consortial or national level, these rarely fund routine operations and they incur future obligations to operationalize the project once the grant is expended.

ó     Fee-based services: These include information searches for local businesses and sales of digital products to the general public. They’re not likely to bring in big sums, and it does cost money to run the service itself. Charging fees to campus users is highly unpopular unless voted through local governance and incorporated into bundled student or department fees.

With outside revenues and endowed funds, there may be a risk of receiving a lower direct budget from the institution, if it seems that the library can fund large portions of its own expenses on an ongoing basis. Demonstrating what sources of funds support which services is more and more important in establishing local budget models and reassuring faculty and students that special funds and projects are not somehow draining support or energy from core services.

· Scrimping on paper clips

All of the rest of the operating budget can be laid bare. If every single category is cut, it does add up, but arbitrary restrictions on things needed for basic operations may demoralize staff and push them to avoid the rules. There is a tendency to make blanket prohibitions on travel, seemingly to show that the noses are to the grindstone; this effectively is a reduction in training and consortial work that ultimately would be to the campus’ benefit. There are ways to be cautious in travel and other areas while retaining discretionary funding for special opportunities and performance rewards.

Strategic Opportunities

Fiscal distress can present opportunities. Ideally, a library director would whip out a strategic plan and make changes based upon priorities widely understood and approved. It’s rarely that simple, but neither is it far-fetched. Even if there is not a formal plan in place, the basic components can be put together with a few staff and faculty groups in not much time. Focus on university mission and programs and see where library services fit in to new directions.

The library should not be some independent entity that merrily goes along doing whatever it can afford. It is important to link library funding to growth in student or faculty FTE, to the creation of new majors and schools, and to initiatives like distance or international learning. Focus on campus concerns such as faculty recruitment, accreditation, enrollment competitiveness, new academic programs, or attracting research grants.

Highlight service improvements and positive changes, at the same time as the less popular things are being done. When change is happening everywhere, there is a chance for the library staff and the faculty to push for things that they may have wanted to do even before, that save staff and time and improve service:

Electronic reserves

Automating the last bits of manual processing

• Combining service desks

• Patron empowerment: self-checkout; direct interlibrary request

• Online self-instructional modules for information literacy

• Redefining vacancies to support new trends and services

• Saving space and binding costs with electronic subscriptions and consortial merging of back runs

• New partnerships: library consortia, campus collaborations, business partnerships


Library cuts affect the whole campus, and require a broad consensus to put into action without conflict. It’s not about competing to win the campus prize for goodness, or about taking punitive cuts as a result of unworthy performance. It’s developing understanding of the heart of the university—of a complex service, what it takes to deliver it well, and how best to align it with campus goals and outcomes. As the doctors say, it takes a patient care team, communication and a combination of treatments. — Sarah M. Pritchard is University Librarian, University of California at Santa Barbara


Curzon, Susan Carol. “Budget Shortfalls,” Library Journal, May 15, 2003, p.34-35.

Hennen, Thomas J., Jr. “Performing Triage on Budgets in the Red,” American Libraries, March 2003, p. 36-39.

The Bottom Line: Managing Library Finances, 1988- , quarterly, Emerald (MCB University Press).


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Library Issues: Briefings for Faculty and Administrators (ISSN 0734-3035) is published bimonthly beginning September 1980 by Mountainside Publishing Co., Inc., 321 S. Main St., #213, Ann Arbor, MI 48104; (734) 662-3925. Library Issues, Vol. 24, no. 4 © 2004 by Mountainside Publishing Co., Inc. Subscriptions: $80/one year; $140/two years. Additional subscriptions to same address $25 each/year. Address all correspondence to Library Issues, P.O. Box 8330, Ann Arbor, MI 48107. (Fax: 734-662-4450; E-mail: Subscribers have permission to photocopy articles free of charge for distribution on their own campus. Library Issues is available online with a password at


last modified: March 2004


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