Creating a library on a shoestring budget (or: how to DIY your socks off)

One day, when I was 22, I decided I was going to make my own soap. I was doing a summer internship as a wilderness ranger with the Forest Service, climbing fire towers and learning botany in the field and generally doing all sorts of things that seemed unlikely or impossible. I drove into the nearest town with my laptop, found a handy how-to guide, tentatively whipped up my first batch, and blew my world wide open.
No, not with a chemical explosion (though lye is dangerous; be careful)*. Blew it open with possibility—what couldn’t I make? What couldn’t I do? On golden afternoons home from wilderness spikes, I made bagels, jam, paper, books. I taught myself to whittle old Appalachian toys. Something lost in the 21st-century devaluing of the (traditionally women’s) work in the kitchen and home is the miraculous power of making things with your own hands. For me, it felt like everything had shifted sideways—did I need to buy anything ever again? How had I been tricked into thinking that it was necessary to have someone else make my soap in the first place?
If DIY, thriftiness and craftiness also run deep in your veins, you’re absolutely in the right place. Roll up your sleeves and get cracking! If creating a library on a small budget seems a little more challenging to you, run through the list below. (This Skybrarian recommends a clipboard & freshly sharpened pencil for added confidence, and/or for stabbing naysayers in the eye.)


1. What resources do I already have?
a. The quickest and most heartening question to ask when budget-building feels daunting. When I started, I had a space to work in, some donated shelves, several hundred used books, a laptop, and a supportive administration. (Also, time, passion, and some great podcasts for the hours spent affixing spine labels to books.)
2. Do I really need it?
a. Look to your mission statement, your institution’s mission statement, and your community needs. It would be amazing to have a state-of-the-art 3-D printer and gleaming modern furniture. But those are (really shiny) icing on the cake. Start with the cake. If you want a reading culture, get books. If you want to build literacy, brainstorm lessons and programs. Get to the essentials first. Don’t be afraid to start with the basics; those are (to mix metaphors dreadfully) going to be the foundation for everything else.
b. Consider your scope. It’s easy to think “I need to do X because I see other libraries doing X.” But: do you need an inter-library loan system if you’re not connected to any other libraries? Do you need a cataloging system that works on mobile devices if most of your population lacks mobile devices? Do your research, be smart, and be specific.
3. Can I get it cheaply, used or free?
a. Books: Definitely. Reach out to your community for book donations (see entry on effectively soliciting donations), or run a book drive. Go to thrift stores and used bookshops. Keep your eye out for your library system’s book sales—most systems do this annually, if not more often. Make sure to have a collection development policy in place, as well as a sense of what to buy—just because a book is cheap or free doesn’t mean it’s a good fit for your collection, and your students won’t want to use a library filled with musty copies of The Bridges of Madison County.
b. Software and programs: Do you need software with expensive licenses, or can you find freeware that will serve the same purpose? Lots of folks have compiled great lists of free or inexpensive library software—poke around a bit before deciding how to allocate your software budget.
4. Can I make it myself?
a. Avery, Demco, and other suppliers of printable labels are happy to sell you templates for printing on those labels. With a word processing program and a bit of time and patience, you can easily make your own. (I did—I’ll link it on the Resources page.)
b. What else can you DIY? Bookends, shelf labels, cool and crafty displays. Bonus: if you’re in a school, consider engaging the students in your DIY endeavors. The more involved your students are in the creation of the library, the more they feel that the library is their space—increasing their enthusiasm for and use of the library. It’s an all-around win.

You’ve got your space, your mission, and a go-getter attitude. Next up: which materials I decided were necessary, what worked, and what it all cost.

Honey, let's go make a lye-brary!

Honey, let’s go make a lye-brary!

*Always add your lye to water, not vice versa. Just… always.


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