What does $500 buy you?

Recently I saw a post on a Facebook group where a school librarian from an affluent area was budgeted about $500 for a private school of nearly that many students–so about $1 per student. The librarian seemed to think that her school and/or stakeholders could probably afford more, but was asking others about their budgets and how to advocate for more money. The thread of answers went something like this…

  • “$0.00 budget. Taken almost 10 years ago. Only book fair earnings…”
  • “About $12 per student. Just under $8,000 this year. My first year, and I’m in awe that I get to buy that many books!”
  • “About 1,000 students and I’ve had $0 budgeted for the last four years…”
  • “Wow, mine was reduced from $15,000 to $3,500 for my 900 students…”
  • “About $25 per student…”
  • “350 students and 0 budget for books. $150 for paper and tape…”

Do any of these responses sound familiar? Do any surprise you? How stakeholders invest in school libraries is vastly different across cities, states, and regions. This was only a handful of the responses, but the numerous others ran the gamut.

In our district, the print book budgets are systematically getting slashed year after year. It doesn’t help that our school system has suffered from a serious financial crunch for a number of reasons as of late. When those making the financial decisions don’t see the payoff in investing in school libraries, then it becomes easier for them to cut the budgets. I was able to get a small amount of time with our CFO earlier in the year and was able to share a little information using our collection analyses about the age of our collections and circulation statistics, but I’m not so sure the message was getting through. It was clear that this conversation was going to have to be a longitudinal one.

This Facebook post could not have been more timely as I had been asking myself some of the very same questions about stretching budgets earlier that same day. As a district librarian, I sometimes fill in where it’s needed so I have been spending time at an elementary school with a vacancy they’ve been unable to fill. I was busy cataloging the books purchased with the $500 allotment provided by the district and remembered a tactic that was shared with me recently about creating a visual impact for stakeholders.
I stacked the newly cataloged books, all 32 of them, and I quickly grabbed my phone and snapped this picture.

Looking at numbers in pie charts and bar graphs can help make sense of data, but what I had in front of me was exactly what I needed. The picture shown illustrates exactly what $500 means to a school library.

I decided to share this photo with the building and district administrators that have influence over our budget. But I didn’t stop there…

Data is what administrators need, right? Well, I shared some relevant statistics as well:

  • This elementary has 351 students and last year circulated 12,179 books, which averaged 33.7 books per student per year.
  • Our allotment from the county purchased 32 books this year.
  • The average age of this collection is 2003 which is several years older than the oldest students in this school.
  • The books pictured above would each have to circulate 380 times to equal the number of checkouts last year.
  • The average lifespan of a hardcover library book is about 20 circulations.

(mic drop)

Am I expecting a sudden turnabout in the budget allotments? No. But I’ve added another snapshot to our longitudinal conversation about adequately funding our school libraries in a clear and concise manner that anyone can understand.

Advocacy is not something you do once. It’s every day. You know your school library better than anyone, and if you don’t advocate for your program, no one else will.


Author: Sedley Abercrombie

Sedley Abercrombie is the district digital learning and library media programs specialist for Davidson County Schools in North Carolina, an NCSLMA executive board member, and an adjunct instructor at East Carolina University.

Categories: Advocacy/Leadership, Blog Topics, Collection Development

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2 replies

  1. Our school and district administration support us. I wish I had specific advice that would solve every funding problem out there. Since that does not exist, I would suggest with sharing what your library is doing for students and teachers. Document the learning, the reading, the creating, and share it.

  2. Wow! This is a real thought-provoker. And I love the lines, “Advocacy is not something you do once. It’s every day… and if you don’t advocate for your program, no one else will.” I really appreciate that you coupled this sentiment with some clear, concrete, and relatively easy ways to couple data with a storytelling image (in this case, almost literally) to help raise awareness in the district of how these library cuts are impacting students’ ability to get their hands on materials.

    Also, excellent use of a mic drop! =)

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