Reference department budgets vary across types and size of institutions, although all include some basic expenditures such as personnel, materials, equipment, and increasingly, technological infrastructure. Dalrymple (1988) describes several crucial steps to be undertaken before drafting a budget, emphasizing the importance of the department's environment, economy, planning, documentation, and justifying the budget.
First, the librarian must understand how the reference department's environment will affect budget creation. The environment encompasses everything from the mission of the library that houses the department, the budget cycle for the parent organization (library, university, municipality), fiscal year dates, and other contextual factors.
It is vital to learn about the budget system used by the library. A traditional system is a line-item budget, in which each expenditure fits into a pre-determined category, such as staff, materials, equipment, etc. More recently, some libraries are using project-based budgets, for which each project of the department must have measurable goals and outcomes. Department expenditures are then distributed across programs (Benson, 1988). While such budgets may more easily accommodate new projects (such as electronic resources), they also raise the issue of measuring cost/performance ratios (Lankes, Gross, & McClure, 2003). While determining cost/performance ratios have always been difficult even for traditional reference service, electronic resources have aggravated the dilemma as there are currently no utilization standards embedded in software to assess cost data easily (Lankes et al., 2003).
The librarian in charge of creating the budget must understand the macro-economy of the library. This could include being informed about local, state, or national developments such as state bond measures for libraries, or changing demographics in a community that will affect a user base. Keeping abreast of such issues will enable the librarian to build a budget based in reality.
Dalrymple (1988) emphasizes the necessity of preparation and planning. Budget planning should not be done at the last minute, but should instead be a flexible and evolving process, as staff, material, and technology needs can and do change constantly. By creating a budget that is a living document, the creator can adapt quickly to new developments, both internal and external.
Proper documentation is another element of budgeting. The reference department should have clearly documented policies, staffing plan, equipment list, and preservation plan, all of which will contribute to creating a budget that is a "flexible framework for action" (Dalrymple, 188, p.45). Documentation should also include use statistics (see above for related difficulties), as well as a "wish list" in case the department benefits from an unexpected windfall.
The last step is justifying or "selling" the budget. No matter how well prepared a budget may be, resources may not always be available. However, being flexible and prepared for the worst will mean that a department can function even on a slim budget.
The over-stretched reference budget seems to be increasingly common; a phenomenon often attributed to the increased expenditures related to electronic reference resources (Landesman 2001; Landesman, 2005; Lewis & Wilkinson, 2003). Library users are requesting more and more full-text online reference resources. Lewis and Wilkinson (2003) report that while there is discrepancy among librarians on whether or not they have maintained the number of print references they buy, all say that they are spending more on electronic resources. Whereas reference monographs were once budgeted as one-time expenses, online resources require annual subscriptions. Furthermore, there are significant technological infrastructure costs associated with online resources. These high costs have forced some reference librarians to cut titles in both formats in order to meet their budgets (Landesman, 2001).
Many professional organizations publish statistical reports of what member libraries spent over the previous year on selected expenses. The following are a sample of such reports; some are free while others require a subscription or purchase.
Association of Research Libraries Statistics (ARL)
“The current ARL statistics include data on collections, staffing, expenditures, library services, and library and university characteristics for the 112 ARL university libraries.” Free.
Public Library Association (PLA)
“The data contained in this year's report was collected from 938 public libraries. Categories include financial information, library resources and per capita measures, annual use figures, technology-related statistics and more.” (Information on Children's libraries will be included in 2006 edition). Fee-based.
Association of College and Research Libraries (ACRL)
“Statistical Summaries for Academic Libraries. Summary reports from ACRL's 2005 Academic Library Trends & Statistics with data from over 1,100 institutions”
Free summary statistics
Print version or searchable electronic versions are fee-based.
Benson, J. (1988) Reference Planning and Budgeting in the New Technological Era. In R.A. Fraley & B. Katz (Eds.), Finance, Budget, and Management for Reference Services. (pp. 5-12). New York: Haworth Press.
Dalrymple, T. (1988). Budgeting at the Library Department Level: A Middle Manager's Perspective. In R.A. Fraley & B. Katz (Eds.), Finance, Budget, and Management for Reference Services. (pp. 39-48). New York: Haworth Press.
Landesman, M. (2001 November). The Cost of Reference. Library Journal (Supplement), 126 (19), 8-10.
Landesman, M. (2005). Getting It Right: The Evolution of Reference Collections (Electronic Version). The Reference Librarian, 91/92, 5-22.
Lankes, R., Gross, M., & McClure, C. (2003 Winter). Cost, Statistics, Measures, and Standards for Digital Reference Services: A Preliminary View (Electronic Version). Library Trends, 51(3), 401-413.
Lewis, L., Wilkinson, F. (2003 September) Follow the Greenback Road: Budgeting for Reference Resources. Against the Grain, 15 (4), 1, 20, 22, 24.