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  • Three Years and Counting—The Economic Crisis is Still With Us
  • Charles B. Lowry, PhD (bio)


Where library budgets are concerned, there is every evidence now, after three years, that we have arrived at "the new normal." That is, we do not expect a return to systematic and regular additions to Association of Research Libraries' (ARL) budgets in order to support ever-increasing prices that are out of proportion to inflation. These are facts that ought to be understood as matters of survival not only by librarians but also in the library market place generally.

The economic crisis that we have faced during the last three years has allowed us to make hard decisions—or as Rahm Emanuel famously said, "You never want a serious crisis to go to waste. And what I mean by that is an opportunity to do things you think you could not do before."1 Early indicators point to the fact that the "serious crisis" is not going to waste for research libraries around the world. The evidence is that ARL libraries are grappling with the economic crisis by accelerating the rate of adaptation of the research library model.

Data Collection

ARL has been collecting the data on budget allocations from its members since fiscal year 2008–09. The first two iterations of that effort appear in the published record and in presentations that are available online.2 These data are not the same as those published in our well-known annual statistical survey of library expenditures. In simplest terms, we asked members, "How much money did you get, not how much did you spend?"

In order to achieve maximum comparability, for this year's survey we repeated the request for data from years one and two, as well as asking for additional data about year three, that is FY 2010–11. Of our 115 academic library members, 80 responded. Table 1 shows a distribution of the 80 respondents that is representative of our libraries by size of expenditure and by type. [End Page 757]

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Table 1.

ARL Library Expenditure Levels by Library Type

Total Library Budget Allocations

I want to start with the big picture—that is, an analysis of the bottom line for three years' total budget allocations. Our first survey, conducted two years ago, reported serious levels of reductions in budgets in 2008 at the beginning of the downturn (see figure 1). These initial cuts were made well into the fiscal year. The hard data from that first survey showed that 55 of 100 responding ARL member libraries had reductions ranging from less than .04 percent to a high of 9.4 percent. Both the mean and median reductions were 3 percent. Therefore, as we examine the change from years one to two, and two to three, remember that nearly 55 percent of ARL members were already starting from a year-one base of reduced budget allocations. Things definitely got worse.

Table 2 demonstrates the trends. In year two, 46 libraries, or nearly 60 percent, had flat or reduced budgets. In year three, there were 36, or nearly 47 percent, with flat or reduced budgets—hardly a positive trend. Keep in mind the obvious—flat budgets are as good as cuts when price rises of both periods are taken into account. It goes without saying that this is an unprecedented period of budget constraint, and the magnitude of some cuts is truly draconian—over 20 percent.

The worst-case scenario for a library was to experience three consecutive years of budget cuts. We used scatter plots to try to understand how individual institutions did over time.3 The first scatter plot showing percent changes from 2008–09 to 2009–10 (x axis) and 2009–10 to 2010–11 (y axis) helps us explore whether there are consistent patterns of decline or increase in the individual library's budget allocations for the three fiscal years (see figure 2). Each of the symbols represents a library. The majority of the institutions cluster around zero, with no indication of a clear linear trend for the totality [End Page 758]

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