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CAUT Bulletin Archives

May 1996

The Accountable Academic Library

Ken Field
University libraries and the services they offer are an intrinsic part of the missions of universities. They house and provide access to the resources which are integral to the support of teaching and research. They are the places in which students learn of the tools necessary to build a foundation in their discipline and in which the fruits of the labours of research are made available. Academic librarians are the teachers and researchers in university libraries. It is they who teach the students how to use the tools necessary for learning. It is also they who explore and experiment with new means of making the accumulated knowledge of mankind accessible.

University libraries in Canada have been subjected to numerous budgetary pressures over the last decade. Among these are, the rising costs of serials, decreasing financial support from their institutions, the need to keep up with the seemingly relentless advances in computer and information technology, the need to slow the deterioration of existing library collections and the provision of space for collections. Yet university libraries have managed to maintain reasonable levels of support to their constituencies in the face of this barrage of increasing costs and decreasing funding. However the erosion of the quality of the services and resources is beginning to cut deep.

Over the past decade the rising cost of acquiring the resources necessary to support teaching and research has far outstripped increases in library acquisition budgets. Double digit inflation has become the norm in the serials industry. This is particularly evident in the scientific, technical and medical (STM) journals where between 1984 and 1994 the average price increase was a staggering 172 per cent for periodicals published in the U.S. Few if any academic library collections are made up entirely of STM journals and this dramatic increase is tempered somewhat by the relatively small increases in journal prices in the arts, humanities and social sciences. Nonetheless for the same period for periodicals published in the U.S. spanning all disciplines the average increase was 146 per cent. By any measure, increases of this magnitude place tremendous pressure on the ability of libraries to provide resources to their users.

Library acquisition budgets in Ontario rose by 22 per cent over the 1984-94 period. It is easy to see this comes nowhere near addressing inflation of 146 per cent. Academic libraries are being forced to carry out massive serial cancellation programs. The University of British Columbia, for instance, has cancelled over 5000 subscriptions worth $1.3 million over the past 4 years in order to not only stay within their budget allocation but also to maintain an appropriate balance between monographs and serials. They are not alone in this as most libraries try to contend with increasing prices.

Advances in the electronic dissemination of information are also having an impact on the ability of academic libraries to fulfil their role in universities. Over the past 5 years the Internet and the World Wide Web (WWW) have become increasingly popular means of disseminating information.

The use of electronic technology for the dissemination of information is still in its infancy. Issues like; how will libraries access and archive material published electronically, are universities prepared for the substantial capital costs of migrating from paper-based systems to electronic systems, and how long will libraries have to maintain paper-based systems alongside electronic systems are just now being addressed. The financial pressure being felt by academic libraries makes this transition more difficult.

As the costs of acquiring necessary resources rise and increases to library budgets fall short of the amounts required to maintain current collections, the preservation of existing collections is neglected. The deterioration of library collections is the inevitable result of much use and the problem of acid paper. The decay of paper with acid as a component is dramatic and swift with books becoming unusable within about 50 years of publication. The costs associated with this are not being factored into the equation of the continuing viability of academic library collections. In the very near future vast amounts of knowledge, 50 per cent of current university collections by some estimates, will be lost.

In addition to pressures on materials budgets there is also pressure on academic librarians and staff in libraries. Institutions continue to look for ways of reducing academic and staff salary budgets by means of attrition, redundancy, etc. Filling positions which are vacated for these or other reasons is becoming less frequent thus placing greater amounts of work on those who remain. Increases in workload have a number of negative effects like reduction of services, degradation of the quality of services and lowering of morale.

It is in this environment that calls for greater accountability are being heard from provincial governments. It appears that accountability is equated with reducing costs and being more efficient. This is fine if one has a system which is squandering resources while being accountable to no one. I suggest that there is such a dearth of resources for libraries that simply trying to maintain levels of support for teaching and research requires every precious penny to be used wisely.

Academic libraries by the nature of their role in universities must be accountable to the communities they serve. Every time a student enters a library to research a paper topic, do required reading or complete an assignment, or when faculty draw up course syllabi or use the library to track research they are evaluating the resources and services of the library. If the library is unable to meet their needs they tend to be very vocal.

For the moment, governments at the provincial and federal levels provide the greatest percentage of funding to universities. They do this because universities provide both social and economic benefits to communities, provinces and the country. Even so, levels of funding from government continue to drop and as a result the quality of education and in particular of academic libraries has been diminishing. One might ask therefore to whom is government accountable for the erosion of something so important to our society?

Ken Field is Chair of the CAUT Librarians Committee.