Tuesday, August 21, 2012

Why Are Academic Libraries Getting the Short End of the Stick? Can We Do Something to Turn Things Around?


I read an article by John J. Regazzi a short while ago, and I can't stop thinking about it. The gist of his piece, "Comparing Academic Library Spending with Public Libraries, Public K-12 Schools, Higher Education Public Institutions, and Public Hospitals Between 1998–2008," is that academic libraries are getting the shortest possible end of the budget stick. Not only are we worse off than we were ten years ago, we're worse off than any other category he considered.

Before I move onto why this article has stuck with me, and what I think we can learn from it, here's the abstract:

"This study compares the overall spending trends and patterns of growth of Academic Libraries with Public Libraries, K-12 schools, higher education institutions, and hospitals in the period of 1998 to 2008. Academic Libraries, while showing a growth of 13% over inflation for the period, far underperformed the growth of the other public institutions in the study. Academic Libraries lost nearly 25% of their share of higher education total spending, suggesting a shift in higher education priorities. Academic and Public Libraries are shown to have very different investment and spending priorities with Academic Libraries as a group reducing staff and investing in their collections, while Public Libraries have expanded their staff and services significantly, but not collections. Patterns of spending and investment differ markedly for Academic Libraries by size of institution, while size of library or community is not a differentiating determinant for staff or services growth."

And here are my thoughts, in no particular order:

  • It's hard not to increase our spending on collections, especially electronic collections, when the suckers keep getting more and more expensive.
  • The fact that our parent institutions (colleges & universities) are growing their overall budgets while ours remain flat or even shrink... well, it hurts.
  • I'm wondering if we should (academic libraries & librarians) stop being such good sports about it all. Should we fight more?
  • I'm also wondering why are we still so focused on products and not services.

Beyond everything else, one thought stands out: we're doing something wrong and we need to make some changes. Refocusing our missions seems a good first step. As an information literacy/instruction librarian, I'm admittedly biased, but I think we should be concentrating on educating our communities instead of on providing more and more content that they may or may not know how to use. More is not always better. I also think we should concentrate more on outreach and marketing to our parent institutions, specifically to the decision makers. Even better, we should recruit our most vocal advocates to go talk for us.

Other than those broad ideas of how to fix this situation, I'll admit I'm somewhat stumped, but I'm not giving up. Libraries are too important to the health of our parent institutions, and to the success of our students and faculty, no matter our size/mission/location. Like I said already, we're obviously doing something wrong. We obviously need to change. But how? 

How about you? What do you think about this disturbing trend in academic library budgets? Do you have any advice about how we can turn things around? 


  1. The number one most disturbing trend that I see isn't shrinking budgets, it's spending them on things like the article you cite - which would cost me over $40 to read. That price is a reflection of the value of the stuff we write for nothing and give away to the private sector, which swallows most of our dwindling budgets. If I were a higher administrator, I would question the wisdom of putting more money into libraries. I would also tell the faculty to figure out how to advance knowledge rather than their careers and insist that tenure and promotion reflect that value. Sadly, I am not Emperor of All, but that's what I would do.

    1. Good point. Every time I explain the academic publishing business to someone outside of academia, they are always astonished.