Two boys sitting on a blanket reading a book in a primary school library.

Updating Your Primary School Library on a Limited Budget 

SLS UKAdvice

Subject: Literacy

Topic: World challenges

Year Group: Primary EYFS – KS2

Synopsis: Exploring ways to prioritise school library spending when money is limited and book prices are rising by Pat Elliott and Sharon Walsh from Westminster Schools Library Service.

Pat Elliott & Sharon Walsh
Tower Hamlets SLS

Librarian’s view:

Dr Seuss puts it well in I Can Read With My Eyes Shut, “The more that you read, the more things you will know. The more that you learn, the more places you’ll go.” But how can time-short school staff tasked with overseeing library collections better monitor and choose the books in their care?

While recognising that literacy through reading for pleasure and curriculum support is a priority, deciding what should be bought is far from easy. Strategies are needed to make the most of any library collection and prevent its oversight becoming overwhelming. Schools Library Service staff have the time, knowledge and expertise needed to help school staff decide how to spend their dwindling library budgets and encourage the enjoyment of books and reading by pupils.   

Updating your primary school library on a limited budget

OFSTED recognises that not all primary schools will be able to accommodate a dedicated library space. In this article, ‘library’ is used as an umbrella term (excluding reading schemes) to cover any fiction, non-fiction and picture books available for pupils to enjoy, whether for curriculum support or reading for pleasure. These books are often available as classroom collections, rather than being accessed in purpose-built libraries.   

In the current economic climate, literacy leads and those tasked with overseeing school library collections face the difficult job of deciding how to use the limited budget available for books. In a short period of time, the price of new books has increased significantly, particularly for attractively illustrated non-fiction books. To buy 100 books split evenly between fiction and non-fiction in today’s market could easily cost over £1,000. With the discount specialists like SLS receive from suppliers, the cost for the same number of books is reduced to approximately £750. This saving can be used by the school for other spending.   

At Westminster SLS we are frequently approached by school staff for advice on book buying, and also for updating and revitalising school book collections.  

Before any book buying takes place, either by us or by school staff, it is important to explore how the books are being used, and by whom. Questions to consider include who uses the books the most? Is it staff, pupils or both? If the books aren’t being accessed by pupils, why not? Are there pupils with special needs, both physical and neurological, who find the books difficult to access, or are books hidden behind tables and inaccessible for the greater part of the day. If the latter is the case, a simple solution would be to rearrange the furniture to enable access. The limited budget could then be used to buy, for example, a colourful rug, cushions, a poster or pot plant to make the area attractive and welcoming to pupils. For younger pupils, the acquisition of a browser box also encourages easier access to irregular-sized picture books.

When library stock needs updating our first step is to suggest an audit, with the withdrawal of damaged and outdated books. This will create a focus for decision-making and help prioritise what new stock should be bought with a limited budget. Asking the following questions should help this process:

  • Is the collection missing popular or prizewinning authors, and other exciting, newly published stock?
  • Are there any significant subject or author gaps which should be filled?
  • Will pupils benefit from the replacing of withdrawn books, especially well-thumbed fiction by popular authors like David Walliams, or outdated non-fiction subjects such as space?
  • Should ‘difficult’ non-fiction and fiction be supplemented by simpler material with wider appeal, including graphic and hi/lo (high interest/low readability about complex subjects but with simpler sentences) books?  

Case study    

A September 2021 advice visit to St Joseph’s Primary School in central London led to Westminster SLS buying several hundred books to top up their classroom collections. The school has no dedicated library space. Instead, each class has its own book corner comprising fiction and non-fiction books, which support reading for pleasure and the curriculum.

During our free advice visit, we assessed the book provision available to the pupils in each classroom, estimating the total number of books, the ratio of fiction to non-fiction and the overall condition of the books and how up-to-date and relevant they were. We took note of topics covered in the non-fiction collections and with both the fiction and non-fiction we made note of authors as well as the different types of books available (eg, graphics, picture books for older readers, classics etc.).     

We made recommendations in our report to the school on how they might improve on what they were already offering. We looked at how the books were displayed, book weeding, buying books, cataloguing, etc. and provided approximate costings for each area. The school opted to weed their books themselves and focus their spend on updating their book stock.    

We bought books for all their classes from Nursery through to Year 6.  Our selections were informed by the national curriculum, topic maps used in the school and a wish to increase books supporting equality, diversity and inclusion. At all times we were mindful that each pupil is at a different stage of their reading journey. Having classroom collections rather than a centralised library did provide specific challenges in supporting the children and teachers in ensuring that they have a plentiful supply of appropriate and stimulating books to enjoy. Feedback from the library lead was enthusiastic too: “The books have been just amazing. They have really helped raise the profile of reading this year and the children are so enjoying the huge range. A fantastic selection.”   

Choosing priorities

For schools, the question is what is the best way to go about deciding how to spend a limited budget? Rather than a whole school approach with minimum impact, more may be achieved by focussing on one particular year group. Alternatively, books might be chosen for a recurring topic such as Black History Month or on a particular focus area. It is only relatively recently, for example, that publishers have recognised the need in Britain to address inclusivity through illustrations, authors, illustrators and story lines. Recent primary school book audits by us suggest that school library collections have not yet caught up with the increasing availability of both fiction and non-fiction addressing this issue. However, if schools have a small budget to spend on books, this focus area is increasingly taking priority by staff sensitive to this gap in their stock.  

To sum up, familiarisation with a hands on approach to a school’s current library provision will be time well spent, and enable a small budget to be spent wisely. Advice on selecting and buying books, re-organising library provision or creating a new library can always be sought from a school library service like ours. That in a nutshell is our role – to assist schools in achieving their goals.