University of North Carolina Libraries’ Funding Cut By $5 Million

The University of North Carolina (UNC) at Chapel Hill administration announced on October 1 that, as part of major budget-tightening initiatives across the institution, the UNC Libraries’ funding will be cut by $5 million over two years. During the current academic year, close to $2 million will come from the collections budget.

exterior front of UNC Chapel Hill Wilson LibraryThe University of North Carolina (UNC) at Chapel Hill administration announced on October 1 that, as part of major budget-tightening initiatives across the institution, the UNC Libraries’ funding will be cut by $5 million over two years. During the current academic year, close to $2 million will come from the collections budget, which covers new books and journal subscriptions and is projected to drop from $15.5 million to about $13.7 million. If the additional $3 million reduction the following year is taken from the same source, the overall collections budget will shrink by nearly one-third of its current level over those two years.

UNC has lost revenue during the pandemic, leaving it with an estimated $200 million deficit in the current fiscal year, as well as a roughly $100 million preexisting structural deficit and about $850 million in deferred maintenance. A January 15 letter from Chancellor Kevin M. Guskiewicz, Executive Vice Chancellor and Provost Bob Blouin, and Interim Vice Chancellor for Finance and Operations Nate Knuffman announced that the university would be making deep budget reductions—7.5 percent to operating expenses across all units and 1.5 percent to personnel funds—for FY21–22. These cuts, they said, would allow UNC to reinvest in initiatives that align with the goals of its Carolina Next: Innovations for Public Good strategic plan.

A number of other major university library systems have seen large cuts due to pandemic revenue losses this year, noted Vice Provost for University Libraries and University Librarian Elaine Westbrooks, “but I don’t know of anyone who’s had a cut this cut this deep over two fiscal years, and this broad.”

These reductions are not only the result of cost-cutting measures at the institution. The steadily—and steeply— rising cost of journals and databases has long presented an ongoing challenge. While UNC has provided additional funding to the libraries over the years, these one-time contributions can’t keep up with inflating journal costs, and the libraries have regularly needed to trim subscriptions. In April 2020, after several rounds of unsuccessful negotiations, they chose not to renew a bundled package of approximately 2,000 Elsevier e-journal titles, shifting the subscription model to fewer than 400 individual titles.

The recent cuts leave little room for negotiations with smaller publishers, noted Associate University Librarian for Collections Strategy and Services Nerea Llamas. “We are facing this confluence of problems, and it’s not something new to us,” she said. “We have made changes in order to deal with high cost of journals and inflation, but this this is a moment that all of that has come to a head.”

“It is definitely a wake-up call, because if it could happen at UNC it can happen anywhere else. But it also speaks to this higher ed–wide problem,” said Westbrooks. “Our peers suffer from those two first problems, the inflation and escalating costs. In many ways I really don’t know any other research university that is not struggling.”



The decision to focus on the collections budget was not made lightly, noted Westbrooks. “Over the past 20 years, the library has gone above and beyond to protect collections—even though expenditures have gone down—including cutting staff to protect the collections. And now I feel like enough is enough,” she said. “We are not in a position to continually sacrifice people.”

Cuts will be made across all formats—journals, databases, media, and books, said Llamas. “What we were really conscious of doing is not digging into one format or one discipline,” said Llamas. “We decided to spread the cuts all across the collections and really think about how we could preserve the basics, the core of what is needed for most disciplines.”

Currently, library administration is looking at where workarounds can be found or improved; because the need to find alternative models has been ongoing, some are already in place. When the Elsevier package was canceled, the libraries implemented Reprints Desk, an automated purchase-on-demand service, to accommodate clinical faculty who might need articles immediately. Llamas plans to add more content to the Reprints Desk feed. UNC is also a member of the Triangle Research Libraries Network, a collaborative that includes Duke University, North Carolina Central University, and North Carolina State University, which increases the capacity of its interlibrary loan (ILL) services, and is looking into implementing Ex Libris’s RapidILL resource sharing system as well. They are also looking to invest more in open access publishing, and encouraging faculty and researchers to deposit content in UNC’s Carolina Digital Repository.

“We are channeling our efforts into: How can we get content just in time? How can we beef up ILL? How can we buy articles on demand? How can we buy more books on demand? And how can we really channel our one-time funds to make some strategic purchases with those funds? That’s the strategy that we’re taking at this point,” Llamas told LJ. “And of course, we’ll have another round to do for next year as well.”

Both Westbrooks and Llamas praised library staff, who have been doubling down to get content to students and faculty as they need it. But the work of making cuts and covering the gaps with fewer resources has been difficult for everyone, they noted.

“We’re kind of heartbroken. I mean, none of us come into this profession to be in the position to eliminate resources that we know our communities need,” said Westbrooks. “Just the process of deselecting and canceling takes a lot of work. I think people don’t understand how much work that is.”

At the same time, they have been heartened at the outpouring of support and sympathy after the cuts were announced. “Hearing from my colleagues across the country has been very encouraging, and that’s what gives me hope,” Westbrooks told LJ, as well as “my staff, my amazing leadership team. I’ve heard from alumni, donors, all kinds of people who have been very empathetic to our situation.”

UNC will reexamine the budget in June 2022. For now, “We’re making these cancellations based on the best information that we have right now. And as we take those in, as we start to see where usage lies, as we start to see the feedback from faculty and students, then we’ll start to perhaps readjust our approach,” said Llamas. “There will be adjustments. We may cancel things right now that we realize later were not the best things to cancel, and we’ll be able to come back and adjust for that.”

And perhaps, after a year of belt tightening, adjustments will be made in the libraries’ favor. “For now, we’re planning for the worst and hoping for the best,” said Westbrooks. “Libraries really touch so much of campus and they’re so important to our communities, to our students. I believe that the administration at the University of North Carolina really wants to get this addressed and work something out.”

“We cannot be the global institution we aspire to be without a strong library,” Blouin said in a statement. “While the challenges of sustainable scholarship, inflationary industry practices, and balanced budgets are not new, we face them all at once now. I have every confidence that working together, we will meet this moment and set the University Libraries firmly on a successful path forward.”

In the meantime, noted Llamas, “If there’s anything positive that could come out of it, perhaps it’s that it’s becoming a little more transparent, the value of the work that we do.”

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Lisa Peet

Lisa Peet is Executive Editor for Library Journal.

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