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Education Department releases new data on academic libraries

Academic Libraries in Flux
December 14, 2011

Some campus libraries might be under pressure to cut costs, but as of 2010 academic libraries were spending more money than they were before the financial downturn that started in 2008, according to new data released Tuesday by the Education Department.

In the latest in a series of occasional surveys, the National Center for Education Statistics collected data from nearly 3,700 academic libraries, accounting for 86 percent of all libraries at two- and four-year institutions.

Overall in 2010, the libraries spent a total of $6.83 billion. Six years years earlier, in 2004, academic libraries spent a total of $5.75 billion — the equivalent of $6.61 billion in 2010 dollars.

And while total expenditures have remained basically stable since the last time the department conducted the survey, in 2008, academic libraries are spending less per student. That year, they spent $468.50 per student ($538.78, in 2010 dollars); in 2010, they spent $438.

Subscriptions to electronic journals accounted for a big chunk of the expenditure increase since 2004. During that year, academic libraries spent $480.1 million on electronic journal subscriptions. In 2010, they spent $1.25 billion, an inflation-adjusted increase of more than 80 percent.

Conversely, the amount libraries spend on print serials fell over the same period. In 2004, academic libraries spent $883.5 million on print subscriptions. In 2010, they spent $536.7 million, for an inflation-adjusted drop of more than 50 percent.

These data jibe with anecdotal evidence suggesting that publishers in recent years have been raising the subscription fees for electronic journals, while libraries have been canceling print subscriptions.

Not surprisingly, the most dramatic change in academic libraries between 2004 and 2010 was the number of e-books in their collections. In 2004, academic libraries held 32.8 million e-books. By 2010, they held 158.7 million. Spending on e-books has also jumped — though, it is notable, less drastically: from $65.6 million in 2004 to $152.6 million in 2010.

By contrast, spending on print books (and other non-journal materials) actually fell, as academic libraries began getting rid of or placing in high-density storage books that were getting little or no use. In 2004, they spent a total of $550.6 million on these paper-borne holdings. In 2010, they spent $515.9 million. The decrease is even greater (nearly 20 percent) when accounting for inflation.

Academic libraries saw slight decreases in staff over that six-year period: the total number of full-time-equivalent workers fell from 94,000 in 2004 to 89,000 in 2010. Of the staff who remained, more (10 percent more than in 2004) were pressed into duty digitizing print collections. More of them were asked to field patron inquiries via e-mail or some other electronic medium. Last year, more than half of the academic libraries surveyed offered live chats with their reference staff.   

One function of the library that has not substantially changed is that of a teacher of information literacy — a skill that recent studies have suggested is sorely lacking among students doing research. In 2004, about a third of academic libraries reported that their institutions had a strategic plan that included improving information literacy among students. A fifth reported that their institutions had created a special committee to implement such a strategy.

In 2010, those numbers remained unchanged.

A new question on the 2010 survey asked whether those institutions that had a strategic plan for information literacy had defined a role for the library in that effort. Among the 20 percent of institutions that had such a plan, only a quarter recognized any role for the library.

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