Monday, December 29, 2008

2009: challenges and opportunities ahead

News of the recession seems to be dominating higher ed these days. 2009 will likely put financial strains of one form or another on most academic libraries. It's worth thinking about the challenges and opportunities that a tighter fiscal environment present.

Challenges (or threats):
  • Budget cuts to library acquisitions. Funds for acquiring physical and electronic library content are an easy target. It's easy to see how doing this over many years could hollow-out a library, however. A library's collection still remains the core value that it provides its patrons, I think. Academic libraries should strive for a certain balance between resources devoted to collections and resources devoted to personnel who organize and guide users through those collections. Budget cuts exclusively or primarily targeted at acquisitions are bound to throw that balance out-of-whack.
  • Personnel cuts, especially those done out of expediency and without regard for long-term interests. Leaving unfilled positions vacant can create a savings, but what positions are vacant at a given time is an arbitrary matter.
  • Personnel cuts are bound to focus energies on keeping up day-to-day operations at the expense of forward looking projects. Cutting the staff time that moves the library and forward may leave the library in a position where it stagnates in its current practices, and as a consequence, as time goes on the library may produce less value for the institution. Underinvestment in a library may be end up being quite costly.
  • The precipitous drop in retirement accounts will likely lead to many library employees putting off retirement. This may lead to a kind of malaise among staff, especially if there are many folks that would rather retire, but are holding out for financial reasons.
Opportunities seem less obvious, but I think they are there:
  • Acquisitions of collections. With whatever monies are left in our acquisitions budgets, now might be the time to aquire expensive one-time purchases at a discount. These could be large electronic collection sets, or additions of rare materials to a special collections unit.
  • Construction and remodeling of new buildings. If you can raise the cash, construction costs are bound to be lower in the recession, especially considering that the market for commercial real estate has dropped off a cliff.
  • Cutting underutilized acquisitions. Cuts to acquisitions can also spark a worthwhile review of current purchases. It might be the time to speed up the shift in formats from print to electronic or to get rid of underutilized formats like microforms.
  • Restructuring of internal library operations and personnel: tighter personnel budgets may spur on some beneficial restructuring where some positions get rewritten and consolidated. Bad times can provide managers "cover" for tough personnel decisions.
  • Institutional restructuring might provide new roles for the library in areas like web content management and academic technology, given the trend towards combined librarian/educational technologists.
  • Entrepreneurial libraries may have more success taking on new roles like publishing or hosting an electronic library for another institution because they can leverage their existing infrastructure to provide services at low cost.
  • Increasing utilization of consortia: all that consortia do for us including resource sharing, group purchasing, and shared services will become that much more important with constrained local resources. It may be time to expand the role of the consortium rather than contract it.
  • Movement of technology services into the cloud. Tight budgets might be good incentive to move our software off expensive locally managed platforms into lower cost cloud-based ones. We may need to relinquish some control to do this, but it should lead to into more innovative services in the end, if at some cost to localism and perfectionism.
  • Hiring new employees: if we do have the opportunity to recruit, we're likely to see lots of good candidates.
  • Federal cash: hopefully, the Federal economic stimulus will include funds for higher education, including academic libraries.
Let's hope that things get better as '09 unfolds.

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