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portal: Libraries and the Academy 3.2 (2003) vii-xi
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A Consideration Of The Obstacles
Charles B. Lowry
I consider it a "given" that the contribution of academic and research libraries was a central element in the success of the mission of higher education in the twentieth century. That premise leads to a difficult question—does it matter if libraries continue to be central in the century just beginning? Here I will make a second assumption—that it really does matter a great deal. At the risk of sounding pessimistic, it helps to understand the obstacles to re-positioning libraries successfully so that they may continue their vital contribution of providing access to scholarly information. These are largely beyond our immediate ability to remedy. That does not mean we should not try to understand them and to find the allies who can help us do the work of shaping the future of libraries—and there are many such allies. During the last two years, I have written closely allied pieces that have appeared in these pages exploring several topics that in my view are critical to the question of the future of libraries—on change, on the so-called "paradigm shift" and on intellectual property. In large measure, this essay is a capstone for all of them. 1
Among the most immediate and obvious of our problems is one that libraries have been grappling with since I began my career 30 years ago in the great higher education downturn of the early 1970s—a declining share of fiscal resources. That downturn brought an end to what has been called the "golden age of library collecting." Libraries have never recovered. A recent cover story in the Chronicle of Higher Education devoted itself to "The Crumbling Intellectual Foundation" and described budget cuts for libraries, university presses, journals, and culture, which are converging to threaten the infrastructure on which professors and students depend. The key point was that in budget downturns, some items traditionally have been protected. These include the largest single line item in higher education, faculty salaries. At the same time, tuition, the major source of support, has been protected from dramatic increases—at least until recently. [End Page vii] States have also protected capital spending in order to create economic stimulus for recovery. They have been able to do this because construction is funded by long-term bonded indebtedness and does not have a large or immediate tax implication for which lawmakers pay a political price. However, the "budget items that support intellectual life are much smaller and much more vulnerable, so many academics believe they will not be able to bounce back when the economy recovers." 2
The compelling evidence that this has happened before and is cyclical can be found in a Mellon study published ten years ago. We learned from the study University Libraries and Scholarly Communication . . .that the library share of the educational and general expenditures had been declining for about thirty years. 3 Now, we can say forty years. In short, with each economic cycle of retrenchment and recovery, academic libraries have not rebounded, but in fact have lost ground. It is happening again today in the current economic downturn, in which states are hunting for ways to live within their means while not revisiting recent massive tax cuts at the end of the last boom/bubble cycle. This imperiled infrastructure of scholarly communication is interconnected with other issues. Declining budgets mean fewer book purchases from scholarly presses and that, in turn, leads to a further downward spiral in the fortunes of these presses. Serials cuts combined with aggressive if not usurious pricing practices of commercial STM publishers lead to cancellation and further price increases. Space does not allow me to say more about the fact that the vigorous emergence of networked electronic information places further pressures on these fragile budgets. Suffice it to say, great harm is being done by these economic realities. As an institution, academic libraries (that is to say library managers) are poorly positioned to do anything about it...