For years, journalists covering scholarly publishing have relied upon a standard formula that has become a cliché. It goes something like this:
- There is a crisis in scholarly communication. Libraries can no longer purchase everything their readers want. Quote angry academic. Quote Harvard University Librarian. Quote SPARC.
- The cause of the crisis is publisher greed. Cite Reed-Elsevier profits.
- Invoke savior: Open Access publishing, free repositories, publish then review, overlay journals, illegal sharing…etc.
- What’s preventing resolution? Tenure committees, funders, publishers working for their own interest.
- Last, appeal to social activism: We have to work together. No one can do it alone.
This formula makes for a great story: There are victims — librarians, needy scholars, a mother with a sick child. There is a villain — the greedy publisher. There is a hero — usually a graduate student or idealistic young professor willing to take a risk and do what is right. And there is a call to transform moral outrage into action — refuse to review for Elsevier, put your papers in a free repository, pay for open access publishing, steal from the rich and give to the poor.
This narrative doesn’t capture the complexity of the scholarly publishing market, but complexity just confuses a good story. There are too many actors, too many plot lines. Characters are complicated. Our hero is flawed. This realistic narrative cannot be put into a 30 second film trailer that begins with “In a world…”
There is a counter-narrative to this victim-hero story, but its not frequently invoked, and the evidence to support it has been made very difficult to acquire. This is the narrative of the library being slowly starved by its parent institution, and it is much harder movie to watch, because it is a story of long-term neglect. Nevertheless, if you look at the data, its clear that libraries have been receiving a declining share of their institutions’ expenditures.
Regrettably, the Association of Research Libraries (ARL) has not updated this graph since 2011 and they have no intention to do so in the future. I know because I’ve asked twice. Now, it is possible to recreate the graph, but it requires a lot of work and it is unlikely that we would find out anything new. Each year, libraries receive a smaller slice of their institution’s pie.
ARL is still producing some statistics for public consumption, the most popular of which is the Library Investment Index, often referred to as the “ARL Ranking.” The ARL Ranking, like the US News & World Report’s college rankings, is a composite index based on several library metrics: Total Library Expenditures, Salaries & Wages Professional Staff, Total Library Materials Expenditures, and Professional plus Support Staff.
In the following plot, I take the Library Investment Index and convert each of the component metrics into an index, where 2003 = 100, so that we can compare their performances over time. I also include two comparison indexes, the Consumer Price Index (CPI), a favorite comparison tool for ARL, albeit inappropriate and misleading, and the Higher Education Price Index (HEPI), an index that more closely approximates the true cost of higher education.
As you can see, total library expenditures of 115 ARL member institutions (green line) has continuously outstripped general inflation, as measured by the CPI, but has been more in line with HEPI, rising about 31% since 2003. Not surprisingly, Total Library Materials Expenditures (gold line) has also outpaced both inflationary indexes. The median ARL library spent 52% more on library materials in 2014 than in 2003. Not surprising either is the Salary & Wages of Professional Staff (purple line), which increased 53% since 2003 and is now 24% higher than general inflation. Unlike other countries, academic librarians in the United States benefit from employment protection, either through institutional tenure or similar academic status. As Stanley Wilder wrote in his ARL report on demographics “librarians in the U.S. are unusually old and aging rapidly.”
The really interesting and novel trend that no one seems to be discussing is that libraries have been shedding staff, especially since the great US housing recession (yellow line). While both professional and support staff are included in this one line, my memory of this event — at least at Cornell — was that libraries purged themselves of many support staff while providing financial incentives for older professional staff to retire. Whatever strategy was used in each ARL institution, the pattern is very clear: The number of staff at ARL libraries has dropped by 15%, from a median of 204 staff in 2008 to 173 in 2014.
So what stories do these data provide us?
One could argue that libraries are doing a very good job containing costs (green line) in an institution where other costs are skyrocketing. One may also argue that research libraries are spending an increasing share of their budget on collections (gold line), where most readers want their budgets to be spent. Or, one may take a cynic’s view and argue that whereas libraries are becoming more efficient (supporting fewer staff), they are spending much more money on an aging cohort of baby boomers who refuse to retire, preventing a newer crop of librarians from entering the profession.
I realize that this last statement is going to result in a lot of angry comments and personal hate mail, but I should remind readers that the same demographic and economic phenomenon affects US professors similarly and that Cornell University employs some of the oldest tenured faculty in the nation.
The problems affecting libraries and professors are the same problems affecting many other institutions that depend upon highly trained professionals — they cost a lot to recruit, train, and retain. And once in the organization, we like to reward these professionals based on experience and seniority. Unfortunately, these individuals don’t get any more productive as they age — a professor in 2016 is no more productive than a professor in 1966 — meaning that they get much more expensive over time. Unless we believe that we should index professors and librarians salaries to the CPI, we’re going to have to accept that professional costs are going to be difficult, if not impossible, to contain.
Library materials represent a tiny percent of overall institutional expenditures. An outsider may be surprised at how much fuss is made over such a small slice of the institution’s pie. But libraries are still perceived as a core function of the institution, standing as beloved architectural statements of their historic value. Perhaps this is why no one wishes to take responsibility, at least in part, for their financial neglect. It’s much simpler to blame someone else.
A crisis requires a frame of liability and accountability. Someone or something is always to blame, and if it is not apparent, a convenient scapegoat is used as a surrogate. It is much more difficult to talk about systemic problems in an organization – why there are barriers to information flow, why some organizations are underfunded and understaffed, or how well-intended policies and laws create unintended consequences. These complex stories are much more realistic but they never seem to satisfy our psychological need for accountability and closure.
Perhaps this is why the crisis in scholarly communication — a narrative that began in the 1920s — continues to be told today. It makes a darn good story.