As Libraries Reinvent Themselves, Funding Follows

Academic libraries are expanding their roles in areas such as research and affordable learning. By doing so, they’re demonstrating more value to their institution

Academic libraries are expanding their roles in areas such as research and affordable learning. By doing so, they’re demonstrating more value to their institution.

Academic libraries are reinventing themselves by taking on new initiatives that play to their strengths, a new survey suggests. While libraries continue to focus on traditional efforts such as teaching students information skills and providing access to academic resources, 56 percent are looking to boost their support for research—and more than a third are leading their university’s affordable learning initiatives.

At the same time, budgets for academic libraries appear to be stabilizing after several years of steady declines. From 1984 to 2011, the share of university budgets that went to the library dropped by half. In contrast, two-thirds of librarians now expect their budgets to remain the same or even increase over the next few years.

These findings come from a Library Journal survey of nearly 300 academic librarians across the United States, and they raise an interesting question: Are these two trends related?

Dr. Bob Banerjee, Director of Marketing for survey sponsor Ex Libris, believes the answer is yes.

“Academic libraries are expanding their roles in areas where librarians have the skill set to do more,” he says. “Librarians are telling us that if they can demonstrate more value to their institution, they can justify requests for additional funding.”

Supporting Research

One area where libraries are looking to expand their role is in supporting research. More than four out of five survey respondents (83 percent) said this is important to their library’s mission, and 98 percent currently provide access to scholarly research. But there are opportunities for librarians to do even more, such as leveraging their expertise in managing research data and applying metadata to make research more discoverable, as well as ensuring compliance with open-access policies—thereby raising their institution’s profile and improving research productivity.

Currently, about half of librarians (45 percent) say they deposit publications or data sets into research repositories, and 32 percent say they monitor the impact of their institution’s research. But 56 percent say they’d like to play a larger role in these kinds of initiatives.

Among members of the Association of Research Libraries (ARL), these figures are even higher: 93 percent say they help staff deposit data sets into the institutional repository and 79 percent monitor the impact of research. Still, these efforts are rarely being done at scale across the entire institution—and many faculty aren’t even aware of the library’s role as a research partner. This is why 79 percent of ARL members say they’d like to play a stronger role in the research process at their institution.

Making Learning More Affordable

Another area where libraries are taking on an expanded role is making college more affordable by reducing the cost of course materials for students. In fact, the survey reveals that more libraries are taking the lead in affordable learning initiatives at their institution (35 percent) than provost’s offices (34 percent).

Librarians are well positioned to help with this challenge. Because faculty often don’t leverage the library’s existing resources as effectively as they could when developing course reading lists, students are spending more than they need to on books and materials. However, when librarians work with faculty on the development of these lists—and when faculty have an easy way to identify library-owned resources and add them to course reading lists automatically—students can save a significant amount of money.

Greg Argo, associate director for access and digital services at the University of St. Thomas, found that students were over-paying for course packs at his institution. In one instance, he explains, “75 percent of the readings could be supplied via library subscriptions, 15 percent were freely available online, and 10 percent could have been digitized from print materials and provided via fair use. The cost of that packet could have been reduced to zero.”

During the first year of an affordability initiative at St. Thomas in which the library led efforts to leverage its collections for course reading lists more effectively, students reportedly saved about $80,000 in materials costs.

Budget Confidence is Growing

As academic libraries expand their roles and demonstrate more value to their institution, the amount of financial support they are receiving appears to be growing—or at least leveling off.

From 1984 to 2011, the share of university budgets going to academic libraries declined from 3.7 percent to just 1.8 percent. But in this survey, 37 percent of respondents said they expect that their library’s budget will remain static over the next five years—and 25 percent believe their budget will increase.

“There is a sizeable percentage of librarians who are now optimistic about their budget,” Banerjee says. “Something has changed.” He attributes this optimism to the belief that “if you can do more, the money will follow.”

A Sept. 24 webinar will explore these and other findings from the “2019 State of Academic Libraries Benchmark Survey” in more detail. 



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