Senior managers in libraries have been managing fluctuating budgets for years now, but have managed to maintain service provision. However, the prospect of deeper financial cuts introduces the real possibility of reductions in opening hours, staff development as well as limitations in resource provision. The decreasing value of sterling will continue to impact UK libraries in what is now an internationalised supply chain, and shifting demands of expectations of students and academics will of course continue to have an impact.
This is how Head Librarians in UK universities currently perceive the oncoming impact of the economic downturn according to The impact of the economic recession on university library and IT services, a report published last month by JISC, SCONUL and UCISA, that seeks to find some of the questions that are taxing most if not all of us about how the UK’s economic problems are going to play out in the academic library sector. The report considers IT services alongside university libraries, and we have blogged about the impact of the recession on IT services on our Education blog.
To pretend that the recession somehow marked the start of budgetary restrictions in academia would be to mythologise the recent past, and this report doesn’t fall into that trap, quoting one respondent to the study from the Head Librarian of a post-1992 university:
I’ve had year on year cuts every year I’ve been here… but what we’re facing now actually is nothing new for us. We’ve had hefty audit difficulties but we’re through that now, but [the audit difficulties] resulted in fall backs, which resulted in budget cuts. So I’m quite expecting 09/10 to be difficult; I’m expecting 10/11 to be more difficult, but it’s within a context of never having much fat on the bones anyway. I know I’m going to cope with it because I’ve been doing it for the last seven years, I’m not coming from a position of plenty to a position of poverty.
An opportunity for review?
But lest we should feel that we’re on a never-ending downward spiral, the report is clear that the library service remains essential to the institution’s core mission of learning, teaching and research. And although there is realism that the “achievable” cost reductions of 2009/10 will give way to much more challenging conditions, there is also a sense of “looking at the bright side”, i.e. seeing an opportunity to review current practices and services to ensure that they remain fit for purpose:
It’s an opportunity for us to look at what we do well, where we have maximum benefit and add true value to activities both that are delivered by this department and also that this department contributes to the faculties and to other departments in the university. [Pre-1992 University]
It’s all the more praiseworthy, given the chronic budgetary challenges that university libraries have endured, that a shift to a more customer-focused service has nonetheless been achieved. It’s all the more remarkable that one of the principal manifestations of this transformation has been a breadth of service provision, with cataloguing and collections management giving way to “a service that delivers a wide range of information management tools across a very broad spectrum of format”.
Social learning spaces at risk?
The physical library building is a huge element of this service transformation. As the report notes:
Changing the physical space of the library so it works better for students has consequently increased their use of the library space (but not necessarily the library resources). So with the shift of resources online, evidence suggests students are now spending more time within library buildings than they have in the past; the library has become a social study space.
The ability to continue to improve and develop social learning spaces, as recommended by the report, may well be compromised by capital budget cuts, which according to the report, are more likely to be impacted than recurrent spend. Estate budgets including storage and social learning spaces may well be endangered, although the acknowledged status of social learning spaces as market differentiators in the competition between institutions to attract students, may mitigate to an extent.
With library design and service enhancements such as extended library open hours now at risk, the problem as I see it is the difficulty of taking away something that has previously been given, a problem that is all the more acute when applied to something that is perceived as an entitlement. So these changes, should they occur, will require delicate handling, especially in the customer-centric services now offered on all campuses.
Another fundamental aspect of academic library provision discussed in the report is information resources. Most libraries are planning to renegotiate their journal portfolio and software licences in coming years, and are also prepared to cut journal subscription and book purchase in preference to staff losses. The impact on university life of cancelled subscriptions has yet to be evaluated, although the report does point out that reductions in spend will have a knock-on effect of weakening library purchase power in the supply chain.
In the meantime, libraries are prioritising measures such as consortial purchasing alongside JISC collections, and also the emerging Open Access model, as a combined means of managing costs in journal subscriptions. Whilst the report suggests liaison with academics to identify e-resources that could possibly be discontinued due to insufficient use, the widespread licensing of national deals can hinder rationalisation of individual titles.
On top of global price increases, UK university library spending power has also been adversely impacted by the drop in the value of sterling. The report notes that no university has developed a plan to mitigate for the impact of currency fluctuations (a problem that extends beyond the library) even though it is a source of concern to everyone.
A choice of two negatives?
Of course we don’t know for certain how the budgetary challenges will impact the university library; all that the report has done is to open up the minds of Library Directors and synthesise the findings, valuable though that certainly is. But the report makes a number of general points that are applicable whatever the outcome.
Firstly, the report points out that libraries will need tools at their disposal for assessing their impact, value and costs, as the sector as a whole comes under increased costs pressure.
And secondly, libraries will inevitably have to make a choice between carrying out multiple cuts across the whole range of services or identifying entire areas to cut instead. The multiple cut scenario entails a risk devaluing the overall offering, and dashing user expectations right across the board. On the other hand, cutting an entire service area, even if it’s a real minority taste, is bound to cause pain.
A choice of two negatives – let’s hope that the future offers more than this.