The Charleston Conference last week featured a plenary address from Jim Neal, Columbia University’s former library director and the ALA president-elect. Jim spoke about his views on the changing nature of libraries and offered a series of “commandments” about how libraries can and should evolve going forward. Among many other observations based on his years of experience in academic research libraries, Jim emphasized his views that strategic planning processes fail us too often, that we need fewer ideas and stronger execution, and that resource allocations are of greater importance than planning.

I strongly agree that the budget is a better document for understanding an organization’s strategy than its strategic plan. A strategic plan contains what economists call our “stated preferences,” which is to say our rhetoric. But a budget articulates how scarce resources are being deployed and what priorities an organization will actually make. This is no less true for a national government than it is a university or its library. As Kent Anderson tweeted, “Budgets are moral documents. They reflect choices.” And, for an organization and a profession that claims to be driven by a set of values, it is the case that, as Kathryn Deiss told me, “a library’s values are visible in the budget.” Or, to put forth a more provocative claim, the stated values are worth little if the organization does not prioritize them in its resource allocations and activities.  


There is a pattern of library leaders speaking against strategic planning (here is a compilation of strategic plans some years back). Just last week, Jim Neal argued against strategic planning and against ideas in favor of action. Ultimately many of the most challenging critiques are about the specifics of how strategic planning processes have worked, rather than against the practice of developing a strong strategy. Did the planning process take too long? Was it designed more as an exercise in inclusion, rather than an effort to repoint strategy? Or, perhaps most fatally, did a library leader confuse the act of planning for action itself?

Much good work has gone into thinking about effective planning tools and processes for academic libraries . The best engage the campus and its strategic directions richly. They incorporate an unsentimental understanding of the broader strategic and competitive environment (a topic requiring leadership training all its own). They provide transparency and inclusivity in the process without sacrificing an aggressive timeline. They yield clarity of direction and a sense of common purpose in the outcome. Two recent processes that had many of these characteristics were from the University of Illinois under the leadership of Lisa Hinchliffe and John Wilkin, and MIT under the leadership of Chris Bourg.

Spending Analysis

Effective planning is of little use if not matched with a willingness to redirect resources.  One of the challenges in budgeting is just how difficult it can be to understand spending in an organization, even one with an apparently simple budget.  Most academic libraries have the vast majority of their budget in just two categories: employee compensation and materials. These large categories can be pulled apart for analysis using a variety of techniques.  

Libraries have developed important new approaches to analyzing the materials budget in recent years.  The University of California undertook a substantial effort to examine the value of its journals subscriptions. The universities of Ottawa, Montréal, and Kansas have just this year articulated new approaches to analyzing the value of their journals subscriptions in the face of challenging fiscal and exchange rate environments.

In terms of employee compensation, however, libraries perceive themselves to have comparatively less flexibility.  Compensation levels are often set by some combination of university level policy and bargaining with appropriate unions.  In some state systems, employee raises are set by the government. The library’s flexibility is marginal at best.  

But libraries have more flexibility in terms of how employee time is allocated.  While even this may be limited by bargaining agreements and other work rules, many library leaders do not have a clear understanding of how employee time–the most precious of all resources–is allocated.  For a library that wishes to devote itself more to student success, or preservation, or open access, or distinctive collections, or research data, or any other worthy strategic priority, one must first ask, what is the current level of spending on this priority relative to our other work?

While job titles may indicate that one employee is assigned to special collections and another to reference, it is valuable to understand their work on a more granular level. Is the special collections librarian involved in instruction? Does the reference librarian curate discipline-specific open access content for students and faculty? In addition to the collections budget allocation, which employees and at what level of commitment are working on general vs distinctive collections or open vs licensed resources? Measuring current practices opens up the ability to increase resources over time.

Timekeeping and project coding can therefore be helpful tools to any effort to examine resource allocations, as colleagues and I found in assessing the costs of the print to electronic transition for scholarly journals.  

Budgeting Techniques

Analyzing expenditures is essential to being able to redirect resources strategically. But analysis is only the first step. And any organization faces impediments in redirecting resources. Library leaders who I interviewed for a recent project spoke about impediments from campus politics to employee work rules. Allocating resources to match organizational priorities is truly at the heart of effective leadership. No planning effort or strategic rhetoric can substitute for this fundamental leadership role.

Some budgeting practices make it more or less likely that a library will achieve this alignment. Many libraries use a version of incremental budgeting, in which next year’s budget is calculated by adding a certain increment to a previous year’s spending.  This is a convenient approach used by many organizations, which recognizes that there is much year to year consistency across activities and workload. Libraries that receive a regular fixed increase in their collections budget–whatever that percentage–as well as stability in their staffing fall squarely into this category. This is a great relief from a stability perspective. Or, similarly although less happily, in an environment of cuts, according to this way of thinking, they are drawn equally across the board.

Other libraries, and their parent universities, are adopting approaches such as zero-based budgeting, activity-based budgeting, or responsibility center management.  For a library that has embarked on a strategic planning process, an appropriate outcome is almost certainly something other than a budget calculated on an incremental basis relative to the previous year.  Instead, an organization that is embarking on new directions has an opportunity to undertake a bottom-up examination of its budget, including direct expenditures and employee time allocations alike, to ensure alignment with its strategic direction. Otherwise, even the most well-intentioned leaders can fail to turn their organizations in the strategic directions they intend. Undertaking a zero-based or other kind of non-incremental budget may not be necessary every year, but it probably should be paired with changes or even evolutions in strategy.

Ultimately, any effective organization needs a strategic direction, and regardless of whether it is derived from a strategic planning process it must draw the organization together in a purposeful way. But without taking the step of transforming the allocation of resources in response, no strategic direction will take hold. Planning and budgeting truly must be linked together in order to move a library forward. As you look at your library budget, are your allocations aligned with your vision? I invite your comments!