3 Questions for KSU’s Laurel Littrell on How Academic Library Budgets Really Work

Continuing the conversation.

February 5, 2023

Laurel Littrell is a faculty librarian at Kansas State University. Among her many roles at KSU is library data coordinator. Laurel is, therefore, well positioned to answer some of the questions that I posed in my piece “How Do Academic Libraries Spend Their Money?Laurel Littrell, a white woman with dark hair and bangs who is wearing a purple blouse.

Q: Can you help us understand the (perhaps evolving) relationship between budgets, materials and staffing? My impression is that an academic library career is stable compared to other professions, but I don’t have much more than firsthand observation to back that hypothesis up. Can you enlighten us?

A: First of all, thank you for asking these important questions and opening this discussion. At a public university such as Kansas State University, where I am employed, budget and salary information is public, and understanding about budget decisions and functions is important to our constituents and communities.

Some libraries have been able to avoid layoffs (and furloughs), but only because they had a sufficient turnover of employees rather than needing to dip too much into the materials budget. Libraries can delay rehiring when necessary to use “salary savings” to manage budgets, at least in the short term. This has a snowball effect, though, because the remaining employees have to pick up the departing person’s duties, and that can lead to overwork, stress, and burnout—causing even more employees to leave. Libraries also restructure positions because our work is constantly evolving, with more library resources going online and less emphasis in many disciplines on print materials. I know that many libraries have had to lay off librarians and staff, and that’s a tragic situation. We are fortunate to have avoided that option so far, but there is a tradeoff. It can dig a hole that can be difficult to climb out, so at some point, it becomes necessary to cut the materials budget.

Q: I take it from the reaction on Twitter to my post that the ability of library leaders to reallocate budget dollars between collections (is that the right word?) and staffing is a sore spot. But again, I’m not part of academic library culture, so I don’t know what I don’t know. What is the story with libraries paying for “stuff” versus “people”?

A: Librarians of all types are incredibly dedicated to serving their communities and are willing to go to the ends of the earth for them. Balancing staff and materials is the fine line every library treads, and you can see from the IPEDS data that for four-year institutions, there is more or less an equal investment in materials and wages. There is definitely not as much “wiggle room” as you would think in the materials budget! Almost all of the materials budgets are tied up in subscriptions and access fees for online resources, often with multi-year contracts with vendors that provide these services. Most libraries whittle away at the budget line for one time purchases not attached to some kind of purchasing agreement simply because there is more flexibility there, but that affects those in the university who need those resources. Mostly these are print books and other physical materials, but even some of those purchases are tied to a contractual obligation. Sometimes libraries are simply unable to make cuts because of the contracts, and if we have a budget cut, or if budgets don’t increase to cover inflation costs, there may be no choice but to take it out of the staff budget, especially after trimming what we can on other things such as equipment, supplies, etc.

Typically, about 95 percent of materials budgets are in subscriptions and contracts (including journals, databases, etc.), maybe 2.5 percent on one-time purchases, and the other 2.5 percent is spent on preservation, binding, and other maintenance of physical collections (including rare books and archives). If a library has no choice but to cut the materials budget, they must go through an exercise in negotiation with vendors, cutting subscriptions, and letting people know that access to these resources is vanishing. Students, instructors, and researchers depend on these resources—losing them can be quite traumatic, and people become understandably angry about these losses. The complexity of this process is difficult to relate. Cutting resources by level of use would appear to be the easiest method, but what if the two to three people who use a comparatively low-use, specialized journal are leading a multimillion-dollar research grant on a topic that is core to the university mission?

To avoid this, libraries hold positions open, absorb extra work, stretch equipment past its prime and find other ways to economize rather than going through the awful process of cutting subscriptions. It makes our vendors mad, it makes us mad and, most of all, it makes our university community mad! Inevitably we have to do it from time to time, but we all really hate it and would pretty much avoid it if at all possible. In other words, rather than sacrificing the materials budget for the salary budget, it’s usually the other way around. Here, we haven’t had to go so far as to lay people off, but our number of full-time equivalent employees has decreased quite a bit in the last 10 to 12 years. Part of that is improved efficiency and changes in our work, but not all of it.

Q: I’m curious about the different sorts of roles that comprise academic library staffing. Can you share information about the sort of jobs that people who work in academic libraries are categorized into, their responsibilities, and relative status and compensation?

A: Regarding types of positions, there’s little consistency among academic libraries. At Kansas State, librarians are tenure track faculty with full rights and responsibilities of the faculty, but that is not always the case elsewhere. There are many different types of designations, unions, etc. To make sure we are all talking about the same thing in reporting data, the Association of College & Research Libraries and IPEDS collaborate on definitions for library employees. These are as follows, pasted from the ACRL website. NISO is the National Information Standards Organization.


  • Librarians: Librarians are professional staff as defined by NISO: staff members doing work that requires professional education in the theoretical and scientific aspects of librarianship, archives, or information studies. [NISO 39.7-2013, section 3.4]
  • Other professional staff: Other professional staff are staff performing professional level tasks who, though not librarians, have equivalent education and training in related fields (e.g., computer sciences, business administration, education). [NISO 39.7-2013, section 3.4]
  • All other paid staff (except student assistants): All other paid staff are staff members whose position descriptions do not require formal qualification (or equivalent combination of training and experience) in librarianship, archives, information studies, or other relevant specialization, and they are not included elsewhere. [modified from NISO 39.7-2013, section 3.3]
  • Student assistants: Student assistants (graduate and undergraduate), employed on an hourly basis whose wages are paid from funds from the library budget or from an account(s) within the institution, including the Federal Work-Study Program. [modified from NISO 39.7-2013, section 3.7]

The balance of numbers of employees in each category in a library depends on the level of centralization/decentralization an institution has in services such as information technology, budgeting and business services, human capital, communications, and marketing, etc. A library that maintains these functions internally will have a very different ratio of types of staff than a library that utilizes central services of the institution. This also can affect the ratio of the wages budget to the materials budget.

Thank you for asking these important questions.

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Joshua Kim

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