Sunday, November 29, 2009

More on the Budget Crunch: Academic Libraries Turn Crisis into Opportunity

The Chronicle of Higher Education ran an article November 22 (I'm catching up on my reading!), Libraries Explore Big Ideas to Overcome Small Budgets, by Jennifer Howard. To read the article online, you need a password, but if you have access to the paper in print, it can be found in the News section. I'll reproduce snippets here, but it's a dandy article and I recommend reading it in full, if you can, by following the link, or picking up the paper.

At many university libraries, the toxic economy has eaten away at staffing levels and at collections-and-acquisitions budgets. It has deflated endowments and disrupted plans to build new facilities and upgrade equipment.

But in response, librarians are doing more than tightening their belts. Some see the crisis as a chance to change the way they do business. It has spurred efforts to dream up ambitious solutions to big problems, such as collaborative storage networks that let libraries share the costs of housing valuable but burdensome print collections. The money pinch has also heightened the appeal of open-access content.

The worst of times, some say, may help make the path to better times clearer. "We joke here, and we've heard it at other places, 'Don't let a good crisis go to waste,'" says Lori A. Goetsch, dean of libraries at Kansas State University and president of the Association of College and Research Libraries. "It has maybe moved things forward at a pace that we might not have been able to otherwise."

To find out just how hard library budgets have been hit, the Association of Research Libraries, which represents 124 institutions in North America, began a survey of its members in October. Complete results will probably not be available for a couple of months, according to Charles B. Lowry, the association's executive director. From the reports he has heard so far, though, the pain is widespread. "Acquisitions budgets are taking a big hit this year, too, along with staff and operations," Mr. Lowry said.
The article details some pretty painful cuts at a number of university libraries of different size, with the expectation that there will be more cuts in the next academic year. However, the article does go on, inspiringly, to talk about how some libraries are coping in very creative ways with the cuts, sometimes to staff lines, and sometimes to acquisitions lines, sometimes to both. Some of the ideas are not going to be accessible to libraries at small or less well-funded, or well-connected schools. But some of the ideas could work anywhere.
To get a sense of how Berkeley's library makes do with less, The Chronicle spoke with Chuck Eckman, associate university librarian and director of collections. He describes a three-pronged strategy, the first part of which is to look for sources of revenue other than state money. (The library has its own development office, and raised more than $10-million last year, according to Mr. Leonard.) Berkeley's library now covers 15 to 18 percent of its collection-development expenditures with money from private sources, Mr. Eckman says. "We're hoping to up that over time."

Second is to beef up longstanding partnerships with other libraries in the University of California system and with nearby Stanford University. For instance, Berkeley is expanding the Direct Borrow Program, through which faculty members and students can get material from partner libraries within 24 hours, into subject areas it has not included before. "We're kind of dividing up the world," Mr. Eckman says of the partner libraries. "The goal here is to ensure that as budgets decline, we don't cancel the same thing."

Third is to figure out which scholarly journals and other materials are truly must-keep items. Over two years, the Berkeley library will cut its books-and-journals budget by 14 percent. Deciding what to ax is the job of 50 "selectors," subject-area librarians familiar with the journals and monographs used by researchers in those areas. The selectors talk directly with departments to find out what they can do without, Mr. Eckman says. "They're best positioned to make the trade-off. We give them flexibility to do that."

Subject librarians on individual campuses such as Berkeley's do not bear these burdens alone. Ivy Anderson is director of collection development at the California Digital Library, part of the California system's office of the president. Among other responsibilities, Ms. Anderson's office negotiates systemwide library licenses with publishers for access to journal databases and other big-ticket items. It provides what she calls "evidence-based" analysis to help libraries throughout the system decide what's still worth paying for and how much it ought to cost.

With journals, for instance, the analysis takes into account how much use they get, how much they cost relative to other publishers' offerings, and their impact factors, a measure of how often articles from a particular journal are cited in a given period of time. That information goes to librarians throughout the system, who use it to make decisions about what is most worth keeping. (The process is complex. Mr. Leonard, at Berkeley, describes the hierarchies of libraries and library-related committees within the system as "fiendishly complicated.")

Having such evidence in hand makes painful cuts easier to sell to researchers anxious about giving up certain journals or monograph series. Still, "the kinds of analyses that one can do are imperfect," Ms. Anderson says. Not every journal has an impact factor, for instance, and a journal that has comparatively small usage numbers may still be highly influential in its field. "So we do rely on the campus experts to make final judgments," she says. "At the end of the day, there's only so much money, and we have to understand where we can make sacrifices." The question is not whether there will be pain but who will feel it most sharply.

One approach that can help lessen the pain, and that increasingly aligns with researchers' changing habits, is to include more open-access content in collections—a cheaper approach than buying content from publishers. The University of California has also stepped up its efforts to get researchers to take advantage of open-access publishing opportunities, Ms. Anderson says. The California system has its own open-access publishing platform, eScholarship, run by the California Digital Library.
The Print Squeeze

The print collections of libraries, however, present yet another challenge. Space for them, and money to maintain them, is becoming very tight. To solve this problem, research libraries are considering collaborations on a whole new level.

Working together is not a novel idea in the library world. Many libraries already belong to consortia that coordinate interlibrary loan programs and use their collective buying power to cut better deals with publishers. The Pennsylvania Academic Library Consortium Inc., or Palci, for example, includes 76 libraries in Pennsylvania, New Jersey, and West Virginia; and the Greater Western Library Alliance represents 32 research libraries from 17 states in the West and the Midwest.

Such consortia are shaping up to be the foundation of ambitious networks of print repositories. Several have embraced the idea of developing shared print collections, according to Ms. Anderson, and the California libraries are part of a group exploring the idea of a Western Region Storage Trust. or WEST, "a shared print repository infrastructure" serving the Western region of the country, she says. The idea just received a planning grant from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation.

If libraries have a guarantee that, say, a print copy of a certain journal is safely archived and accessible elsewhere, they can spend money on other things and avoid duplicating collections. Imagine a supersized interlibrary loan program with an overarching archival philosophy.

"All of these projects involve a level of collaboration across institutions that's rather unprecedented," Ms. Anderson says. If it goes well, WEST will outgrow its regional boundaries. "We see this as the beginning of a network that may be a more national collaboration," Ms. Anderson says.

The Center for Research Libraries, an independent association of academic and research libraries, hopes to coordinate what could become a national or North American strategy. In July it gathered a number of U.S. library consortia and the Ontario Council of University Libraries to talk about collective print-management strategies, reports Bernard F. Reilly, the center's president. "We promised to come up with a plan for pulling these efforts together," Mr. Reilly says, referring to WEST and some of the consortium-level strategies under discussion. "People are doing terrific work at the regional level. That's the only reason it's feasible at the national level."

The center intends to present the outlines of such a plan at the American Library Association's midwinter meeting in January 2010. Mr. Reilly does not underestimate the magnitude of the challenge. There's "the tendency to want to have things physically close," he says.

That problem will ease in time, Mr. Reilly believes, as researchers become more comfortable with the idea that they can get their hands on the material even if it isn't all on the campus-library shelves. "The solution is to get information out to the researchers about how these collections will be taken care of and how available they will be," Mr. Reilly says.

Mr. Eckman, of Berkeley, believes that WEST has "great potential," but he cautions that moving quickly presents risks as well as possible rewards. He points out that librarians who must make immediate hard choices "don't always have the time to work through the ambitious agenda that WEST might have set for itself."

The current downturn "can make creative responses and collective responses more possible," Mr. Eckman says. "It could also force more rash decisions."

A very interesting article about some very interesting developments! My library is involved in the NELLCO (New England Law Library Consortium) as a founding member. And we are involved in an experimental effort locally in Boston to see if the Boston law libraries can evolve a cooperative collection development (or even de-selection) agreement. We don't know if we will be able to make it work, but as the article notes, having the material close at hand seems to be a comfort for the scholars (and maybe the librarians as well). We will see. It's exciting to work on these projects, but a little un-nerving, too. You need to be thinking some years down the way, and what you are setting up for your users, binding your library to. Rash decisions are extremely possible. Not only that, but they may have unintended consequences. One of the comments on the article at Chronicle online:
Consortial purchasing and sharing of resources make a lot of sense from a librarian's point of view. But it poses an extra challenge for us scholarly publishers. If only 10 consortia are buying our journals or monographs instead of 100 separate institutions, the fixed costs of publication do not change and those have to be covered by far fewer sales, which translates into much higher prices for the 10 copies--or, at some point of diminishing returns, cessation of the publication altogether. Thus this strategy, which may work for the short term, has long-term consequences for the vitality of scholarly communication that need to be carefully considered. Promoting more "open access" publishing is fine, too, up to a point, but OA journals and books cost money to produce and someone has to pay those costs. OA may simply result in a shifting of the financial burden within universities from libraries to other units on campuses, like academic departments that will have to pay author fees for their faculty to publish in OA journals. OA has benefits for end users and may well be worth the price, but there is still a price and it remains to be seen whether the costs overall for OA will be less than for TA (toll-access) publishing. --- Sandy Thatcher, Penn State University Press

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