Commentary: The future (budget) of the university library: Physics Today: Vol 75, No 8

University librarians are stewards of resources invested for the collective good of the campus. Responsible stewardship includes serving the mission of the institution, meeting the needs of scholars and learners, and anticipating future needs.

For more than a decade, I have explored the power of future thinking to guide library strategic planning and decision-making.11. LJ Hinchcliffe, Ser. Lib. 7828 (2020). Futures thinking is a framework for considering multiple scenarios of what the future might hold and evaluating those scenarios in terms of likelihood and potential consequences. By considering what futures are possible, librarians can then develop strategies and policies that move toward desirable futures while also hopefully avoiding undesirable ones. Looking ahead also provides an opportunity for other library stakeholders (teachers, students, and administrators) to see their role in ensuring the health of their libraries.

So what about the current state of academic libraries? In short, times are tough.

For decades, academic librarians have faced the realities of collections budgets that have not grown to match the growing volume of journals, books, media, databases, and other resources that faculty and students need for research and learning. Many budgets have not even kept pace with inflation.

The pandemic disruptions only intensified the financial pressures that academic libraries were already facing. An Ithaka S+R survey of US academic library deans and directors found that as of September 2020, 75% of libraries that had a budget for 2020-2021 had experienced a budget cut from what would otherwise have been planned before the pandemic.22. JK Frederick, C. Wolff-Eisenberg, Academic Library Strategy and Budgeting During the COVID-19 Pandemic: Findings from the 2020 Ithaka S+R US Library Survey, Ithaca S+R (December 9, 2020). A notable proportion suffered cuts greater than 10%. Even more difficult, 20% of university libraries did not yet have a budget for the 2020-2021 fiscal year as of September, and many of these libraries had considered substantial cuts.

The survey also documented that the cuts have impacted all aspects of library budgets. Specifically, “62% reduced collections, 59% allocated staff reductions, and 53% reduced operations funds.” Collections budget cuts are further exacerbating the challenges faced by libraries as scholarly output continues to grow while library budgets shrink.

One of my favorite future thinking exercises is the future wheel, which is a visual method of exploring the implications of a given change by thinking about the consequences of the change, then the consequences of those consequences, the consequences of those consequences, etc. The goal is to see the full impact of a particular change from a variety of perspectives and uncover potential unintended consequences, especially those that could be negative, so they can be managed or mitigated.

Whether or not they specifically participated in the Futures Wheel activity, academic librarians are well versed in assessing and managing the implications of contemporary budget cuts and historic declines in purchasing power.

Due to budget cuts to library collections, researchers could spend more time researching access to the articles and books they need – for example, through interlibrary loan – which would take time on other work and increase the time needed to complete a project. Students might have to pay for course materials that are no longer available in the library, which would increase the cost of their college education. And libraries could cancel subscriptions to learned society journals, which would reduce support for fellowships, travel grants and other programs funded by publishing revenue.

Given these potential consequences—and recognizing that a significant reversal in budget trends is as implausible as it would be desirable—academic librarians have sought both short-term and long-term methods to maximize the impact of the budgets available to them. while seeking to alter the financial dynamics of the scholarly communication system as a whole.

Strategies to get the most out of collections budgets have focused on negotiating lower prices, canceling less-used subscriptions, and providing on-demand delivery services, particularly for journal articles. Research libraries have canceled “big ticket” packages with larger publishers and replaced them with a la carte packages that reflect specific campus needs.33.”Tracking reversals of large transactions“, SPARC,;LJ Hinchliffe, “What do libraries keep when they cancel the jackpot?“, Expert cuisine (July 14, 2020). In some cases, they just canceled subscription packages altogether. Unsub, an online subscription analysis tool, has been particularly helpful in these efforts.44. LJ Hinchliffe, “Take a big bite out of the big problem“, Expert cuisine (May 19, 2020). Libraries have been helped during the pandemic by publishers holding prices steady rather than raising fees or even offering price relief. However, many of these programs were temporary and have ceased. In short, libraries are spending smarter and buying less.
Bargaining discounts and similar efforts are unlikely to fully address declining purchasing power or the reality of expanding academic output. Librarians have therefore also attempted to intervene in the market with the aim of changing the business models of scholarly publishing. Transformative agreements, which seek to shift library spending from paying for subscriptions to paying for open access publications, are particularly notable for the increased value received by institutions for their library spending.55. LJ Hinchliffe, “Transformative Chords: An Introduction“, Expert cuisine (April 23, 2019). But they have not yet reduced overall costs for libraries as some have envisioned. The University of California’s multi-payer model, in which its libraries provide financial support to all authors while asking those who receive a grant to cover a portion of the cost of publishing articles, is a unique approach. to solve this problem, but it is still in its early years. of implementation, it is therefore difficult to assess whether it can be extended to other institutions.

Hidden in the discussion of these realignment strategies is a difficult reality: the strategies rely on robust backroom operations and the expansion of other library services. With staffing and operational reductions as a result of the pandemic, libraries may not be able to mitigate the negative consequences of reductions in collections budgets as they once did.

This is why I want to return now to the observation at the beginning of this commentary, namely that thinking about the future provides an opportunity for teachers, students and administrators to think about their roles in relation to the future. of their libraries. To be clear, I’m not saying everyone needs to understand the nuts and bolts of library management. I say, however, that faculty, students, and administrators need to understand the impact of the library on their work — and also what a library collectively makes possible.

University libraries are by nature a lever of equity. They ensure that regardless of background, personal financial resources, social network, or other circumstances, if one is a member of the campus community, one has equal access to information resources. It can be easy for individuals to think they don’t need the library and have personal options. But the question to consider is whether the campus community needs the library.

The current realities of university library budgets reflect the challenges of the past few decades. Good stewardship of declining resources is still a story of declining resources. Librarians must ensure that they create value for their institutions and communicate their impact. But librarians alone cannot ensure that the vision of a library as a public good is a reality on campus. The message that investing in the library is investing in the community is best delivered by the researchers and learners that libraries serve.

  1. 1. LJ Hinchcliffe, Ser. Lib. 7828 (2020)., Google ScholarCross reference
  2. 2. JK Frederick, C. Wolff-Eisenberg, Academic Library Strategy and Budgeting During the COVID-19 Pandemic: Findings from the 2020 Ithaka S+R US Library Survey, Ithaca S+R (December 9, 2020). Google ScholarCross reference
  3. 3.Tracking reversals of large transactions“, SPARC,; Google Scholar
    L. J. Hinchliffe, “What do libraries keep when they cancel the jackpot?“, Expert cuisine (July 14, 2020). Google Scholar
  4. 4. L. J. Hinchliffe, “Take a big bite out of the big problem“, Expert cuisine (May 19, 2020). Google Scholar
  5. 5. LJ Hinchliffe, “Transformative Chords: An Introduction“, Expert cuisine (April 23, 2019). Google Scholar
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