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Strategies for Sustaining the University Library
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[Erratum]

From the editor: I am pleased to feature this guest editorial based on remarks made by Daniel Greenstein in his keynote address for the meeting "Sustainable Scholarship," hosted by the ITHAKA organization in New York City on September 23, 2009.

The university library is a vital force at the very heart of the academic enterprise, both physically as well as metaphorically. Yet, its future has never seemed more uncertain. This essay offers observations about the challenges in the years ahead and possible strategies for responding to them.

Let's begin with the challenges. University libraries are principally reliant for their operating revenues on the same funds that meet the costs of a university's academic departments (including, crucially, the faculties' salaries). Bluntly, those funds are diminished by the global recession, and it is not clear that they are likely to rebound, let alone resume their growth, any time soon. The lion's share of those resources derives from revenues received for the instruction of students. Whether provided by public bodies, in the form of block grants, or privately, in the form of student tuition, the national capacity (the political will in the case of the public block grant) to sustain the levels of support so recently enjoyed is structurally impaired. The severe cuts meted out in 2009 to many public universities across the country are not isolated events occasioned by an episodic economic downturn. Rather, they continue a secular trend of divestment from public higher education that was begun perhaps a quarter century ago and was partially obscured by the enormous expansion in undergraduate enrollments, which was reflective of a demographic bulge—now receding—in the college-bound cohort. Private universities, too, are troubled, particularly in situations in which they used the interest on their endowments to offset their core instructional costs. But there is cause for concern outside that small, and once very charmed, circle of elite private institutions. Looking forward, it is not clear that the U.S. economy will any time soon see a return to the long-term rise in inflation-adjusted family income (much of it driven by the proliferation of the dual income family) that helped sustain, and even grow, the private university sector during the last half of a century.

There are other colors of money available to support libraries: unrestricted gifts allocated to the library by the president or chancellor, indirect costs paid by research grants, and the taxes that a university applies to its auxiliary services—dorms, parking lots, and hospitals, for example. But these monies are in short supply, and there is stiff competition for them. Research grant funding contributes handsomely to the university's coffers (about one-third of the budget at the University of California). But one cannot simply siphon away the funding that is needed for a new assistant professor in economic history or the library's collections budget from a National Science Foundation-sponsored climate change study. Yet again, capital funds are different, but these too have restrictions on their use, are in short supply, and are being distributed in a way that tends to favor labs and classrooms, not libraries. Private gifts made directly to the library represent the only reliable alternative revenue stream; and, while targeted development efforts are re-energized, it is hard to imagine—except in very rare circumstances—their generating sufficient revenues to sustain an institution that is largely unchanged.

Accordingly, and as a consequence of their funding model, the budget trade-off decisions that involve the library are the most difficult for any university administrator to make. To put it crassly—sustain the library budget or pay the start up package for a new professor of chemistry, support the library or maintain a less commonly taught modern language. Such decisions are only complicated by the recent appearance of massive global digital libraries that seem poised, in the popular imagination at least, to replace the university library as the principal source of scholarly information. Why invest much at all in the university library when journals, reference works, and soon tens of millions of books and monographs, both in and out of print, will be available effortlessly and online?

Confronting challenges...