3 Questions on Academic Library Budgets for an Assessment and Planning Librarian

A conversation with Sarah R. Fitzgerald from the University of Massachusetts at Amherst.

January 31, 2023

Sarah R. Fitzgerald, an assessment and planning librarian at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst, reached out to me after reading my piece “How Do Academic Libraries Spend Their Money?Sarah Fitzgerald, a white woman with light-brown hair who is wearing a white blouse.

In her email, Sarah shared some fantastic insights on trends in academic library spending. She also had some interesting things to say about the changing structure of academic library careers.

I asked Sarah if she’d be willing to share some of her insights with our Inside Higher Ed community, and she graciously agreed.

Q: How might one go about figuring out the story of academic library budgets? Are these public and published? Does the answer to the last question differ for private versus public institutions? Can you point us to any good resources to understand the story of academic library budgeting?

A: The Association of College and Research Libraries (ACRL) collects statistics on academic library budgets annually. Statistics are available through a subscription to ACRL Benchmark. There is also an annual print publication, ACRL Academic Library Trends and Statistics. The Association of Research Libraries (ARL) also collects statistics on research library budgets annually. ACRL includes all American college or research libraries that choose to participate, while ARL includes just North American research libraries (currently 127).

Q: Can you provide a budget sketch of the “typical” academic library? (If typical is helpful, I don’t know, given the diversity of the postsecondary ecosystem.) How do academic libraries spend their budgets? What are the big trends and debates in academic library spending? What is the relationship between academic library budgeting and librarian salaries and job security?

A: Doctoral-granting university libraries in ACRL spend about 37 percent of their budgets on salaries, 13 percent on fringe benefits, 40 percent on materials and 11 percent on operations. Operational costs include hardware, software, renovations and furniture.

In recent years, the staffing budget averages about 42 percent for librarian salaries, 22 percent for professional staff, 29 percent for support staff and 6 percent for student workers. The number of support staff has been declining for several decades, while the number of professional staff has increased as the work of libraries becomes increasingly technical.

These academic libraries spend about 80 percent of their materials budget on ongoing commitments to subscriptions (including databases, journals, ebook packages and streaming audiovisual packages). About 18 percent is spent on one-time purchases (including books and ebooks). The rest of the materials budget goes to collection support through interlibrary loans, copyright fees and external cataloging fees.

Libraries are buying less print and more electronic materials as print circulation declines. While cataloging used to be done mostly in-house, many libraries can no longer afford to employ dedicated librarians for non-English languages or special material types such as musical scores, so that type of cataloging is often purchased externally. One-time materials purchases such as special collections items are the most straightforward expenses to fund using donor support. Donors sometimes also make ongoing commitments to support collections.

As with other faculty, whether librarianship is a secure job depends on whether you have tenure track or a tenure-like protection at your institution. If you are an academic librarian without the protection of tenure or “continuing appointment” and your dean is willing to protect library jobs rather than the collections that serve research and learning, librarianship could be a more secure job than other non-tenure-track faculty members face.

Databases are usually renewed every two or three years, not every year, so in a budget crisis, not all of a library’s databases are available for cancellation. Library budgets have not kept pace with the escalation of database prices. For-profit scholarly publishing has one of the highest profit margins of any industry. Publishers are able to raise prices almost without limit because the demand for information is inelastic. Patrons do not change their demand based on price, because it is the library that bears the price of information, not the patron. Outside of the richest elite universities, academic libraries have cut back our holdings to mostly the largest, most expensive databases that patrons demand, because we cannot afford everything patrons need. This means the enormous for-profit vendors retain their contracts because they are too big to cancel and the small nonprofit publishers usually lose out. For most academic libraries, materials and personnel are already bare bones, so there is little to cut in a crisis if the library is to continue to function.

The volume of scholarly information which exists is constantly increasing, and the ratcheting up of research expectations from faculty accelerates the increase in the amount of information that libraries must provide. Coupled with profit-seeking practices from information vendors, this means that the money libraries could spend on all the information patrons want is increasing exponentially while our budgets are not. A solution libraries are advocating is the open-access movement. Libraries act as open-access publishers and are trying to negotiate deals with vendors in which we pay to support open-access publishing, which is available to everyone worldwide, not just the institution we serve. Collaboration across libraries is a way to put pressure on vendors and reduce prices for the information patrons need.

Q: How might those of us in higher ed who do not work in the library understand the broader context of library budgeting? Are there rules of thumb for what proportion of a school’s budget is spent on the library? Are there trends in institutional spending on academic libraries that can be shared?

A: Library budgets depend on the library dean’s talent for negotiation and the university administration’s disposition toward libraries. Library patrons and university administrators used to be able to see the functionality of librarians, when they had to come to the library to access materials. Now that the majority of library subscriptions are accessible online, patrons no longer understand the many expert specialized personnel it takes to negotiate escalating journal subscription prices, provide electronic connections through university authentication and create discovery systems and metadata to ensure that patrons can find the information they are looking for.

As the missions of academic institutions expand, the proportion of the budget spent on libraries has decreased. In 1985, library expenditures may have made up 4 percent of a research university’s budget. In 2015, they would make up only 2 percent. In that time, those university budgets have increased 750 percent, while library budgets have increased only 230 percent. The cost savings for universities on libraries have tended to come mostly from personnel expenditure savings. Library spending on materials increased about 360 percent between 1985 and 2015, while spending on salaries increased only 180 percent.

Academic libraries have not seen personnel increases to match the expanding number of patrons we serve. While student enrollments at ARL institutions increased 64 percent from 1985 to 2015, library personnel have decreased 3 percent. This means that librarians, professional staff and support staff who work in libraries are taking on increasing workloads. Subject librarians who teach and answer research questions are covering more departments even as those departments educate greater numbers of students.

Some library value is quantifiable. Spending on libraries saves university patrons money. For example, if a library has an average sized budget of $13,000,000 for a year and patrons use an average amount of 1,500,000 articles, which would otherwise cost an average of $50 each, then the library has saved patrons at least $62,000,000. This doesn’t take into account all of the books, videos, teaching and other services the library also offers for that $13,000,000 budget. Some library value is not quantifiable. How can we describe the value of students learning to interrogate and verify information they read or hear?

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Joshua Kim

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