Costs Pinch University Libraries
Rising expenses, tight budgets force them to redefine their mission
BOSTON — AS costs climb sky-high and budgets fall through the basement, university libraries are reducing book orders, canceling subscriptions, and cutting back on services and staff.
Meanwhile, the information explosion continues.
"Libraries are paying more and more every year to buy a decreasing percentage of the output of the world's publishers," says Richard De Gennaro, the librarian at Harvard College in Cambridge, Mass.
The situation is causing research universities to refine, and even redefine, the mission and strategies of their libraries.
Historically, acquisition budgets at research libraries have been considered "sacred," says Duane Webster, executive director of the Association of Research Libraries (ARL) in Washington, D.C. "But in this current cauldron of budgetary reductions, the acquisition budgets are being scrutinized just like everything else," he says.
Last fall, students at the University of Tennessee in Knoxville began an emergency fund-raising effort to save their library's most essential periodicals. Budget cuts had forced the library to cancel $230,000 worth of subscriptions.
In a month, the Adopt-a-Periodical program brought in $4,000 from campus organizations and individuals. The money helped reinstate 40 canceled periodicals.
"The library is the foundation of education, and the students really got behind the idea," says Pam Gryder, vice president of the Student Government Association at the University of Tennessee.
But even such heroic fund-raising doesn't address the long-term problems facing university libraries.
"We are going through a paradigm change," Mr. De Gennaro says. "The old way we did things isn't going to work anymore. We have to develop a new paradigm for the information age."
In 1950, there were fewer than 20 research libraries in the US and Canada, De Gennaro says. He estimates that there are 10 times that number today.
The challenge is to "reinvent and reposition these libraries for the next century," De Gennaro says.
The rapid expansion of publishing, the introduction of new technologies, and dramatic increases in the costs of books and journals are forcing research libraries to change.
"The price increases have been astronomical," Mr. Webster says, particularly in the case of periodicals. In the last five years, the cost of serials, which includes all types of periodicals, has increased by 72 percent, according to ARL.
Although book prices are not increasing at the same pace as serial prices, the increases far exceed the rate of inflation.
During the last five years, ARL reports a 47 percent increase in the unit price for scholarly books. "That has been matched with a 25 percent increase in expenditures by universities," Webster says. "But as a result, there has been a 15 percent decline in the books acquired."
These rising costs, coupled with the inability to increase spending, have led to an inevitable shift in the research-library focus.
"Now we view our mission as a shared responsibility rather than an individual one," De Gennaro says. "Back 40 to 50 years ago, every library tried to be somewhat autonomous and tried to collect everything it possibly could. We now recognize that no one can collect everything, not even the Library of Congress."
TODAY, computer networks and national catalogs make it possible for libraries to share resources. And they're doing so more and more.
James Madison University in Harrisonburg, Va., now relies on the University of Virginia and two other universities to provide its students access to most periodicals.
James Madison covers the costs of transmitting articles requested by its users. This is cheaper than buying the periodicals, library officials say.
"Research libraries in the next decade or two are going to be evolving very rapidly toward this new paradigm where it's not just what you own in any particular library, but it's what your library is able to provide access to," De Gennaro says. He describes the research library of the future as a "switching center."
This evolution toward making access rather than ownership the priority calls for increased cooperation between libraries.
"A positive outcome of all this will be more concerted, more effective resource-sharing arrangements where collections within a region or within a state systematically plan to support each other," Webster says.
"These libraries have been around for a long time," Harvard's De
Gennaro says. "I think they're going to be around in the future, but they're going to be different."