As a percentage of overall university expenditures, libraries have been steadily losing ground. This is the main message of an updated graphic produced this week by the American Research Libraries (ARL):

Based on reports from 40 research libraries, the percentage of university funds spent on libraries has declined over the past 25 years, from a high of 3.7% in 1984 to just under 2% in 2009. The downward trend is applicable to both public and private universities in the United States as well as institutions in Canada.

The simplest explanation to describe this trend is that the library has lost its coveted position as the intellectual hub of the university; that administrators don’t think of the library anymore — after all, information that arrives on one’s desktop must be free; and that students value the library more as a quiet place to nap between classes than as a scholarly resource. While these factors may be in play, I don’t believe they explain the trend.

The decline in library appropriation of total expenditures begins in the early 1980s. If you can remember that far back, you’ll recall that the electronic journal was not yet invented, that most research libraries still relied on card catalogs, and that departmental libraries were still alive and well. The microcomputer would not make its debut into libraries until the mid-to-late 1980s, and its use was limited almost exclusively to spreadsheets and text documents. The Internet, while in existence, was relegated to mainframe computers and dumb terminals. Pop music was in, but pop mail was just being invented. Students and researchers consulted print journals and used print indexes for the most part. If you were lucky, you could ask a librarian to conduct a DIALOG search or perhaps wait until literature indexes showed up on CDs, which were often locked up in a cabinet and required asking your librarian for the key.

The transformation that microcomputers, the graphical Internet browser, and finally, e-journals brought to the library created some pretty exhilarating times, and the library was leading the way for many of the changes that would begin to challenge its function (or more appropriately — functions) within the university. After ripping out carpets that reeked of stale cigarettes, many reading rooms were renovated into microcomputer classrooms as librarians became software and Internet instructors. Money was flowing into libraries to install electronic catalogs, or, if they had them already, to integrate them into a more modern library management system. Before the network was fast enough to deliver electronic journals, libraries provided them from dedicated computers, which were perched beside racks upon racks of journal CDs.

Somehow it’s hard to believe that during this time of great transition that the library was out of the minds of central administrators. It wasn’t, and we should avoid the temptation to interpret past trends with recent experiences.

I believe that ARL’s graph of library expenditure decline tells a mixed story of success and failure — success on the part of the library to live within its means, and failure for librarians to get a larger slice of a growing pie. As for the growing pie, it may indicate that universities have failed miserably to keep their own spending under control.

In his book, “Tuition Rising: Why College Costs So Much” (Harvard Univ Press, 2000), Cornell economist, Ronald G. Ehrenberg describes that multiple constituencies, operating largely independently from central budgeting authority, make it exceedingly difficult to control costs on campus. He illustrates how prestigious universities use scholarship funds to lure top-scoring students to campus whether or not they are in need of financial assistance; how universities give budget priority to the sciences and engineering over the social sciences and humanities; and how rising faculty salaries, incentives to lure top scholars, and the absence of mandatory retirement policies contribute to the rising costs of the academy. Moreover, as Malcolm Gladwell wrote recently in the New Yorker, an obsession with where one ranks in the U.S. News & World Report creates a very expensive higher education system that is not always focused on student learning.

Compare ARL expenditures with university spending, and the trend doesn’t look so grim. While library material costs have increased at a faster rate than the consumer price index (CPI), they look tame compared to the skyrocketing expenses going on elsewhere on campus. Part of this ability to control costs rests on the fact that librarians have much more flexibility in controlling expenses than most other departments on campus. It is much easier to cancel a serial than it is to layoff a tenured faculty member or the coach of the football team.

Let’s fast-forward from the early 1980s to the present and look at other efficiencies and cost controls that the library has been able to implement:

  • Ceasing print journal subscriptions
  • Bundled purchasing
  • Consortial purchasing
  • Closing branch libraries (or creating branch libraries/resource centers but with no print resources and managed centrally)
  • Outsourcing cataloging and other metadata activities
  • Sharing and outsourcing reference services
  • Employing students to do the work of staff
  • Staff reductions resulting from all of the above

Whether or not you agree with these solutions, the last 10 years have witnessed massive centralization of the university library with the goal of increasing efficiency while minimizing duplicate work. I am not suggesting that I agree with this approach or that it necessarily translates into equal or better services for patrons — in my experience, it hasn’t — but this has been the preferred path of university librarians. Frederick Taylor, the father of scientific management through industrial efficiency, would be proud of them.

In the early 2000s, I brought an early version of the ARL graphic to a library collection development meeting dealing with one of a succession of budget shortfalls. When I presented the data that the library was being shortchanged by central administration, a senior librarian got red in the face, pointed his finger at me in an accusatory way and exclaimed, “that is Elsevier’s argument.” After regaining composure, I responded, “Yes it is, but that doesn’t make it wrong.” Either we we were going to fight for a fair share of the pie, or accept our fate and cut. I don’t have to tell you what path we (and most ARL libraries) took.

So what does the ARL graphic tell us? From a purely descriptive standpoint, the library has been getting less of the central pie for the last three decades. Depending on your perspective, this has been a great failure, a great success, or more realistically, some of each.

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Phil Davis

Phil Davis

Phil Davis is an independent researcher and publishing consultant specializing in the statistical analysis of citation, readership, publication and survey data. He has a Ph.D. in science communication from Cornell University (2010), extensive experience as a science librarian (1995-2006) and was trained as a life scientist. His research has focused on the on the dissemination of scientific information, rewards and incentives in academic publishing, and economic issues related to libraries, authors and publishers.

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35 Thoughts on "Libraries Receiving a Shrinking Piece of the University Pie"

Apologies for the trivial aside, but I wanted to pick up on your point:

“students value the library more as a quiet place to nap between classes”

I have a daughter who is a university student in the UK, and she has to get to the library before 9 am to get a seat. It is full all day. Even on a Sunday places go by an hour or so later in the morning. The students make great use of the library’s resources, print and e. I am sure this is a typical experience.

  • Maxine
  • Feb 15, 2012, 7:05 AM

That parallels our experience at the University of Utah. Walk through our library at virtually any time of the day or night, and every available seat, table, and corner of carpeted space (especially near power outlets) is covered by students. At any given moment a handful of them will be sleeping (in part because we’ve provided them with Knoll Womb Chairs in which it is physically impossible to remain awake), but the great majority of them are engaged in individual or group projects. Our whiteboards and the glass walls of group study spaces are covered with chemical formulas, mathematical equations, and verb conjugations. Our Knowledge Commons is constantly full of students using work stations that offer a wide variety of scholarly productivity software and hardware.

What students are most emphatically NOT doing in our library is checking out printed books; the stacks are deserted. But the moment we move a section of low-use books into storage and replace their shelving with tables and chairs, the tables and chairs immediately fill with students — and those students are almost invariably hard at work. What all of this means for the future role of the library is a difficult and kind of frightening question to answer, but (in our case at least) it’s clear that students value the library as much more than “a quiet place to nap between classes.” Our library is a hive of constant and energetic scholarly activity.

  • Rick Anderson
  • Feb 15, 2012, 11:33 AM

Ah the Womb Chair, always a personal favorite (though it came in second to the Eames Lounge Chair when it came time to furnish the house). It was designed by Eero Saarinen (best known as the architect behind the St. Louis Gatweay Arch and the much loved TWA Terminal at JFK Airport), to answer a challenge from Florence Knoll. She tasked him with designing a chair she “could curl up in, like a basket of pillows.” The resulting Womb Chair is part of the Museum Of Modern Art’s permanent design collection, and they describe it as follows:

Saarinen, an architect, designed this chair shortly after joining Knoll Associates in 1943. Its name expresses its purpose: “It was designed on the theory that a great number of people have never really felt comfortable and secure since they left the womb. The chair is an attempt to rectify this maladjustment in our civilization.” Saarinen further explained, “There seemed to be a need for a large and really comfortable chair to take the place of the old overstuffed chair. . . . Today, more than ever before, we need to relax.”

Sorry for the off topic rambling, always happy to have a moment to geek out over furniture design.

  • David Crotty
  • Feb 15, 2012, 11:55 AM

Phil, I’m on our library’s faculty advisory committee and here are our figures, a drop from about 3.5% to 2.8% of the total university budget between 1985/86 and 2008/09. What is more telling to me is the budget for acquisitions. Monograph expenditures were slightly higher than serials at the beginning of that period but only went up 155%, well under the general inflation rate of 196%. Serials expenditures in our library went up a $599 percent in that period and now are now about 8.8 million to about $2.4 million for monographs.

Just one person’s perception of what is going on at one university. Yes our total budget has gone up but what I see from being on a number of university faculty committees is cut after cut after cut and a hollowing out of many essential programs. When I was on the graduate Council a few years ago, we closed down about 30 programs. Probably 20 of them made sense but there were a bunch of good programs that we just couldn’t afford invariably in the arts and letters and social sciences. The number of teaching assistants in arts and letters was cut dramatically so that where beginning writing classes were taught with graduates assistants in fairly small classes which allowed students to write 6 or 8 papers a semester they are now taught by faculty in large ~ 150 student classes where it is only feasible to grade a couple papers a semester. One of my colleagues I believe it was in engineering told me they no longer allow non-majors in lab classes, they are expensive and there just isn’t room. The majors have to scrape to be able to get their required lab course in due to the limited space just to graduate on time.

On the surface everything looks ok but from what I have seen, and again its a limited view of one person at one university is many of our key educational programs are being hollowed out and student education is really suffering. In the long there will be a price to pay for this.

  • David Solomon
  • Feb 15, 2012, 7:08 AM

The reason Elsevier’s “go get more money” position was wrong, is because we continued funding their increases at rates well above inflation, so they weren’t harmed by library’s receiving a lower portion of the University’s funding. They got larger percentages of our materials budget funding even when overall funding receded to lower levels relative to University funds.

  • chuck hamaker
  • Feb 15, 2012, 9:01 AM

So what’s the take away? That libraries shouldn’t fight for any budgetary increases because Elsevier would get some of the money? Isn’t that cutting off your nose to spite your face? And why is it even necessarily true? What am I missing here? What’s the vision?

  • Irving Rockwood
  • Feb 15, 2012, 11:02 AM

And if Elsevier, or any other publisher, offers more journals and more articles, is it wrong for them to ask for more money in return? If their material is making up a larger percentage of what your patrons are reading, is it fair that they receive a larger percentage of your materials budget? How does usage compare with costs?

  • David Crotty
  • Feb 15, 2012, 11:20 AM

University libraries have taken the path of moving services online and centralizing and de-duplicating (or eliminating) certain traditional services, along with important cross-institutional initiatives. Similar patterns can be found in certain academic service functions such as the registrar’s office, and perhaps to certain degree in the ways that faculty members conduct research. Will such approaches prevail on other core activities of the university such as instructional delivery?

  • Roger C. Schonfeld (@rschon)
  • Feb 15, 2012, 11:38 AM

This last recession has pushed some universities (particularly Cornell) to look for administrative efficiencies. For instance, centralizing how purchasing and billing are done, or outsourcing tech support. Teaching, however, is one of those things that is much more difficult to find efficiencies. While universities can increase class sizes or use graduate students (rather than faculty) to teach classes, there is always push-back. Indeed, many institutions pride themselves in their low faculty-student ratios or require all faculty to teach and advise students. Ultimately, this drives up the cost of universities, although it also makes them more “prestigious.” Parents love the thought of their children being taught by Nobel Laureates and MacArthur Geniuses and living in collegiate Gothic-style dorm rooms. It doesn’t make for cheaper education, however. As long as higher education is done by humans, it is always going to outstrip the growth in the CPI.

  • Phil Davis
  • Feb 15, 2012, 11:52 AM

One factor not mentioned was the growth of IT and all the costs that go with it from the mid-80’s on. It would be interesting to track the percentage of the universities’ budgets for IT across the same time frame.

  • Dan Lee
  • Feb 15, 2012, 1:25 PM

Dan Lee gets at my point, which is that we’d need to know far, far more about the cost drivers for the numerator before making we any conclusion about the denominator. It could easily be that your 40 libraries have been doing an extraordinarily successful job of securing budget during a time when higher ed is confronted with new or exploding costs in other areas. Or we could indeed be declining, but on its own, the graph can’t make that point.

  • Stanley Wilder
  • Feb 20, 2012, 4:08 PM

I don’t think I like making Frederick Taylor proud as the author suggests, but I do think libraries are truly moving out into creative areas for managing costs. Having strong and forward thinking academic library consortia is key; ability to adapt to the electronic world and re-purpose space to effective student uses are all important. But what about increasing effectiveness – and not just focusing on efficiency? We need to talk about both for any sort of picture of the role and status of libraries in academia. Please ARL – shouldn’t we have a chart on effectiveness and don’t you think it might show a great upward trend even while the funding trend to going down?

  • Dave Bilyeu
  • Feb 15, 2012, 1:49 PM

Phil, while I think you make some important points about why it is difficult to control the cost of higher education, it is mathematically impossible for university tuitions to outstrip the growth in CPI indefinitely.

  • Mark Danderson
  • Feb 15, 2012, 2:06 PM

Yes, but to quote the economist, John Maynard Keynes, “in the end, we’re all dead.”

As long as parents and students are willing to pay the high tuition fees charged by some universities, it doesn’t matter if tuition increases continue to outstrip general inflation.

  • Phil Davis
  • Feb 15, 2012, 3:17 PM

I don’t think it is that simple. What I fear we are doing is pricing poor and middle class students out of higher education. Just a side issue but an important one. In the early 70’s State subsidies paid 70% of our university’s budget. Now I believe it is around 35%. I think that is fairly typical of state universities.

  • David Solomon
  • Feb 15, 2012, 6:08 PM

What I fear we are doing is pricing poor and middle class students out of higher education.

David, that’s a good common-sense concern, and I wonder whether the enrollment data support it. Are fewer poor and middle-class students attending college today than did, say, 20 years ago? Or 50? (This is not a leading question; I honestly don’t know the answer and would like to.)

  • Rick Anderson
  • Feb 15, 2012, 7:07 PM

Rick, I don’t know the data either for undergraduate students. I work in medical education and I do know the debt load among medical students is very high and growing. Last year it averaged about $117,000 at graduation across all students in all medical schools. That’s an average. Many of our out-of-state students are well over $200,000 in debt at graduation. They obviously make good salaries when they go into practice but their debt can be daunting. I think it is a problem across all higher education.

  • David Solomon
  • Feb 15, 2012, 9:24 PM

Whether or not there are more or less isn’t necessarily the problem if you factor in how many low/middle-income students are coming out of school 100,000 in debt (or more..) and unable to find a job.

  • Karen Stover
  • Feb 15, 2012, 11:31 PM

doing more with less can make you a victim of your own success. based on the data above, academia needs a better way to prioritize their budgets or they will face long term implications. how much did the university of tennessee pay their football coach to leave a few years ago? i wonder what the library could have done with those dollars?

  • meg white
  • Feb 15, 2012, 2:59 PM

Phil, I’ve often surmised that one reason for this trend – and I refer to this ARL graph routinely in both internal and external presentations – is the increasing investment in research, laboratory science, etc. – but this is just a hypothesis. Since you’ve delved into this more deeply, is this hypothesis supported by the evidence?

  • Ivy Anderson
  • Feb 16, 2012, 4:12 AM

I have seen many comments here and other blogs regarding the increased spending on college athletics. But that is really only half the story; isn’t it? How much money are athletic departments bringing in and what is the net? Yes, I know that gross expenditures are increasing but what of net expenditures? Does anybody have the answer to this question?

  • Mark Danderson
  • Feb 16, 2012, 8:20 PM

One should probably apply those same measurements to research programs and see how increased spending balances with grant revenues.

  • David Crotty
  • Feb 16, 2012, 9:17 PM

I’ve read that many college athletic programs are net-negative, but this information is suppressed or purposely obscured because the implications of a direct analysis are too much for some people to contemplate.

  • Kent Anderson
  • Feb 16, 2012, 9:51 PM

Twenty-two elite athletics departments made money in 2010, up from 14 the previous year, according to an annual spending report released on Wednesday by the NCAA. The median surplus at those programs was $7.4-million last year, up from $4.4-million in 2009.

The numbers weren’t nearly as rosy for everyone else. At the 98 other programs in the NCAA’s Football Bowl Subdivision (formerly Division I-A), the median deficit in 2010 was $11.6-million, barely changing from the previous year, while no programs in the Football Championship Subdivision (formerly Division I-AA) or at Division I programs without football operated in the black. At those programs, losses continue to grow each year.

full article

  • meg white
  • Feb 17, 2012, 10:47 AM

Phil, given this information; wouldn’t it be more accurate to look at net contribution changes rather than just cost increases when comparing university financial commitments to athletics versus other departments? It is hard to say (looking at these numbers) but I suspect that if you used net (rather than gross) numbers for athletics you would find that the slope of the graph above would be flatter. It appears, from the financial figures provided in Meg’s link, at least some universities see athletics as a profit center providing a net contribution to the system as a whole. If that is the case, it would be unfair to look at just changes in athletic department costs without taking into account changes in athletic revenues.

  • Mark Danderson
  • Feb 17, 2012, 3:18 PM

the point of the data in my link is that VERY few (and unique) university athletic departments are in the black … but the spending on these programs continues to outpace what the ARL data reports for the libraries. if this is academia putting it’s money where it’s mouth is, we have a problem.

  • meg white
  • Feb 17, 2012, 4:20 PM

Haven’t read Ehrenberg’s book, but the “rising faculty salaries” part puzzles me; maybe he means “rising administrator salaries?”

From the American Association of University Professors 2010-11 Report on the Economic Status of the Profession:

“The overall increase in salary level, reported on the left side of survey report table 1 and the upper half of table A, was 1.4 percent between 2009–10 and 2010–11. This is barely higher than the overall change reported last year, when we described it as “the lowest year-to-year change recorded in the fifty years of this comprehensive survey.” It seems that this year has been just as tough as the previous one on full-time faculty salaries. … For the second consecutive year, real salary levels fell, and for the fifth time in the last seven years, overall faculty salaries declined in purchasing power. This means that the cumulative change in real salaries for faculty members during the last seven years was 1.8 percent, less than the 2.1 percent increase in real salaries for the median American worker over the same period.”

Available online:

  • Catherine A. Smith
  • Feb 22, 2012, 10:52 PM

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