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Libraries are bracing for budget cuts as colleges face financial realities of a world rocked by the coronavirus.

In the wake of the 2008 financial crisis, library budgets were hit hard.

Cuts were widespread and ran deep. Staff, collections, equipment and facilities at even the wealthiest institutions were affected.

While tough economic times call for all areas of an institution to tighten belts, libraries seemed to be particularly adversely impacted by the recession. Library budgets as a percentage of total institutional spending shrank, and in some places they never fully recovered.

Now, librarians are preparing for another wave of cuts, this time prompted by the economic contraction tied to the global pandemic.

“I’d be very surprised if any academic library escapes this situation without a cut or a freeze of one kind or another,” said Rick Anderson, associate dean for collections and scholarly communication at the University of Utah, in an email. “The question is how deep the cuts will be, or how long the freezes will last.”

Predicting the fiscal impact of COVID-19 on higher education institutions at this stage is impossible, Anderson said. “We don’t even know for certain if our campus will be open for normal business by August or September of this year,” he said.

The best-case scenario on most campuses is for budgets to remain static for the 2021 financial year, Anderson said. But he describes this is as a “highly optimistic scenario, one that assumes business as usual in the upcoming academic year, and minimal drop-offs in enrollment.”

A more likely scenario involves “significant cuts to ongoing budget allocations imposed across campus units, with specific campus directives as to how those cuts will be directed to personnel.”

Institutions such as the University of Virginia have already started to implement institutionwide hiring freezes as part of their effort to minimize the possible economic impact of COVID-19.

In a message to the campus, university president Jim Ryan pledged that the burden of cost cutting would be shared across the institution. All schools and units will cut or eliminate nonessential expenses. The university’s executive leadership team will take a 10 percent salary reduction, and capital projects that haven’t already started are on hold.

Librarians don't expect to be spared.

“I am bracing myself for a much larger impact on library and university budgets than we witnessed in during the 2008 economic downturn,” said Carmelita Pickett, associate university librarian for scholarly resources and content strategy at the institution. “I wasn’t at the University of Virginia then, but I know how it impacted the university that I worked at at the time.”

All units at the University of Virginia have been asked to think about which expenses are nonessential. In the library, this has prompted a close examination of bundled journal subscription packages with academic publishers, often referred to as "big deals." But no decisions have yet been made, Pickett said.

Questioning the Value of the Big Deal

“Even before the pandemic, we were re-examining the value of the big deal,” Pickett said. “That is not unique to our university. This is an issue that librarians have been talking about for 20 years. Now we are at a significant inflection point, and I think most libraries understand they will have to do something different moving forward.”

Two institutions announced last week that they will not be renewing their big deals with academic publisher Elsevier due to budgetary constraints -- the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and the State University of New York Libraries Consortium​.

“Our conversations with Elsevier began a year before this pandemic and our final decision was not influenced by the pandemic,” said Elaine Westbrooks, university librarian at UNC Chapel Hill, in an email. “We’ve reduced the number of titles we’re subscribed to and we have established ways for researchers at Carolina to get the research articles they need, just not by direct subscriptions.”

On Twitter, Westbrooks predicted that higher education institutions will “not be in a position to pay publishers millions of dollars for research that is behind a paywall” after the pandemic. “One thing I have learned from the pandemic is that researchers need to collaborate and will collaborate internationally to solve problems, alleviate human suffering, and to understand the human condition. These paywalls are unjust and unnecessary barriers,” she tweeted.

Discussions about the value of the big deal are not new, and many publishers maintain bundled journal subscriptions offer the best value for the money. This continues to be a very popular option with many universities. Per journal title, big deals offer big discounts versus subscribing to journals individually. But many librarians note there is often a long tail of journal titles that are not regularly accessed. Both UNC Chapel Hill and SUNY have opted to subscribe to a few hundred journals from Elsevier instead of a few thousand.

Kent Anderson, CEO of publishing data analytics company RedLink and former president of the Society for Scholarly Publishing, has previously described decisions to cancel big deals as selfish and shortsighted. In 2018, he said that the survival of many smaller journals in niche research areas hinges on their inclusion in big deals.

After the 2008 recession, there was a spike in big deal cancellations, noted Brandon Butler, director of information policy at the University of Virginia. “If past is prologue, then we can predict that we might see that happen again,” he said.

The decision to unbundle a big deal and subscribe to individual journals isn’t made lightly. The announcements at UNC Chapel Hill and SUNY both occurred after more than a year of negotiating. The difference between now and a decade ago is that libraries have research tools such as Unpaywall at their disposal to understand what content is or is not accessible without a journal subscription, Butler said.

“That might give libraries courage that they didn’t have in 2009,” he said.

In the past, publishers oversold the value of the big deal, said Pickett.

“We have much better tools now that can help libraries articulate the value of big deals,” she said. “We can tell publishers exactly how much our institutions value their content.”

Preparing for an Uncertain Future 

While librarians may soon face tough financial decisions, Roger Schonfeld, director of Ithaka S+R’s libraries, scholarly communications and museums program, thinks libraries are well placed to weather the storm.

"Libraries, perhaps more than any other area of an institution, already offer a robust set of digital services," he said. "They have been preparing for this moment." 

Efforts to digitize scholarly materials and invest in archives are really paying dividends, said Schonfeld. The Hathi Trust, for example, is a nonprofit library collaborative that has now opened up access to millions of digital books in response to COVID-19. 

Mary Lee Kennedy, executive director of the Association of Research Libraries, said many librarians are thinking about “ways they can deliver even more value” as they plan out possible scenarios for the next fiscal year.

“A big trend that we’re seeing is a continued focus on supporting online learning,” said Kennedy. Libraries are playing a vital role in helping instructors track down materials they need to teach, she said. 

Supporting the continuation of research is also a priority, said Kennedy. Librarians are working to help researchers quickly access paywalled research articles. They are also ensuring researchers have the right tools to interpret and share this information, she said. 

“We’re seeing that scholars are a lot more energized and supportive of open content right now,” said Judy Ruttenberg, program director for strategic initiatives at ARL. 

Many academic publishers, including Elsevier, are making COVID-19 related-research freely accessible as researchers rush to develop drugs and vaccines, noted Ruttenberg. “People will want that access to continue,” she said.  

“I don’t think we’ll go back to business as usual after COVID-19," said Kennedy.    

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