Budget Saving Strategies in Academic Libraries and their Possible Impacts

20th February 2024 | Sam Goldsmith

Like many of the staff here at PTFS Europe I come from a library background, in my case academic libraries, and the concerns, needs and pressure points of academic libraries are close to my heart. I would like to discuss in this blog post the impacts and possible long term effects that will be felt by academic libraries after many years of budget pressure.
UK Schools and FE libraries have faced budget cuts over the past 10 years due to uncertain and changing student funding and (alarmingly) OFSTED not requiring a library service to achieve excellence in teaching and learning. When budgets are constrained the leaders of the institution will prioritise ways to maintain funding and a good OFSTED result whilst saving money, often leading to a loss of library staff, space and budget.

Although HE quality of teaching and learning requires a library service, over the same ten year period universities in the UK have seen budgets fail to move with the rapid increases in subscription and resource costs. It has become the norm that publishers’ annual increases will exceed inflation with an average of 4% and some a staggering 11%.
The pandemic also brought a huge and rapid shift of services to online; with budget and even staff loss; yet there seems to be a reticence to return to pre-Covid levels of library funding; despite the fact that C19 period publication deals and freezes are long gone.

Academic libraries are having to provide more for less. And realistically, this is a trend that will continue.


What are libraries doing about it?

Reliance on Discovery services to widen research to open access and ensure full use of subscriptions and archives.
Impacts: Discoveries have become an essential for students to be able to find resources as our expansion into online continues.
FE can be restricted in the choices of discovery with only two main players pricing according to FE budget levels. A duopoly is in place for FE, and very few school libraries are able to afford a discovery. But even with their greater budget power, HE suffers from the small pool of discoveries available, 4 key players, who do not always provide easy access to the other players’ resources. The same issues arise in connecting to LMS systems, reading lists, ILL systems – causing institutions to be “locked in” to a provider or risk having to unravel a lot of connected systems to free themselves. This means that prices are kept high and that new exciting prospects in open source which would save institutions money – become a daunting task to switch to.

The key players do not seem to be developing their discoveries, instead relying on this “lock in” of interconnected systems. Discovery systems in academic libraries tend to connect only subscriptions and the catalogue, they don’t make it easy to include databases from their competitors, websites, Google connectors, archives and local collections via OAI-PMH. There are not yet any uses of machine learning or AI innovations. Some of these things are offered by newer discovery systems such as open source Aspen, but the majority of academic libraries are locked into one of the 4 key players.


Moving to open source software.
Impacts: No licence cost means it is often cheaper overall, even when a support company such as PTFS Europe is employed and therefore a very popular choice for FE. Feel good factors in supporting open and sharing values in a global community that mirror the ethics of librarianship. Free upgrades and constant innovation and development. There are still issues around the lock-in of other providers not sharing APIs or making it difficult to swap out of a “whole library service” solution especially in HE. Some worrying “open wash” moves from some key players who have previously been solely in the proprietary systems market.

Investigating “cost per use” and cancelling unused resources.
Impacts: cancellation may mean loss of the back catalogue, particularly if electronic. Will loss of the archive affect future need? Can we be sure that one year’s monitoring is a true indication of the value of the resource? Are we limiting the pool of organisations that have that resource to loan in the future?

Using more data analysis on impact of the service on student outcomes and retention – to influence spending and protect from further budget erosion.
Impacts: It is important to reflect the values and needs of the organisation and proving impact is vital to the services survival. There are some great solutions for analytics such as open source Metabase which is LMS agnostic and will combine your LMS data with external data for impactful graphics.

Ceasing “big deal” packages and picking and choosing the most used resources.
Impacts: those big deal packages may have been filling out some of the random requests for “on demand” purchase and ILL. If the trend continues the publishers may withdraw support for smaller journals which find a home in these bulk deals. The publishers are not likely to accept lower profits – they will simply put up the cost of the most in-demand items.

Joining consortia and purchasing organisations such as Crescent, UKUPC and JISC allowing for combined purchase power and the ability to get the best deals. Groups can also help with the simplification of tender processes.
Impacts: All positive in regards to pressure on publishers to get the best deals. The tender processes such as APUC can however cause some concerns, depending on the structure these can provide an easy way for the “top” provider to be smoothly chosen by the university without a fair competition – but this impacts on the viability of new technologies and smaller organisations who are new to the market. There is a danger of creating a monopoly of LMS systems in universities as a result of the APUC process and slowing innovation as a result. A new APUC framework is imminent, and it will be interesting to see if there is any change in the weighting given to suppliers who are included.

Using delivery on demand, especially with journals – rather than holding in the collection.
Impacts: Usually this means that the item will not be able to be used by the service again. How many times must the item be purchased to make it better value to keep the resource? Again over time we are at risk of losing unique collections – it must become policy to make sure nationally these are kept, which is a job the British Library currently does, but with the reduction of income from BLDSS will this be able to continue?

Focussing on information literacy and induction: leading to more cost effective usage of resources.
Impacts: An entirely positive approach. There are of course impacts on the focus of staff time, but with innovative new solutions and good reach these programs will ensure resources purchased get the most use. Positive interactions with the library team will also build the influence and impact of the service over time.

User experience tracking: knowing what the students need and adjusting services accordingly.
Impacts: Can take a lot of staff time. One off annual surveys are not now adequate to ensure you are fulfilling student needs.The age old problems are still relevant – easy to ask a regular library user what they like or want to see changed; but how do we find out who we are missing and why?

Working more closely with curriculum: to ensure the greatest positive impact on student learning and experience.
Impacts: lots of positive benefits here as curriculum staff when aware of services will help promote to students, they will become great advocates for the service and integrate the service into their teaching and learning. There will be impacts on staff time. It may be difficult to get involvement from some curriculum areas.

Using more open access (such as OER) and pressuring publishers with unfair practices in terms of open access.
Impacts: the open access movement began in the early 2000’s as a reaction to the fact that library budgets were beginning to struggle to buy subscriptions to journals filled with articles from their own researchers. Prices of subscriptions continue to rise. We are still waiting to find out if any of the models (gold, green, diamond) will become the norm. Although open access such as DOAJ and collaborative publishing groups have improved free access for the reader they have not relieved pressure on budgets – the key professional journals are still required, and these are controlled by publishers who will increment prices to ensure no revenue loss.

Moving away from “all institution” access of e-resources and adding licence when demand is shown or preferring pay-per-use models.
Impacts: uncertainty in the predicting of budgets. Other resources underused due to lecturers/tutors promoting a select few resources instead of encouraging wider research.

Moving away from BLDSS and using shared catalogues and reciprocal borrowing arrangements such as the JISC Library Hub Discover project, RapidILL, Rapido and local arrangements.
Impacts: Reciprocal arrangements especially if entirely free are an excellent solution for academic libraries, sharing archival and specialist resources across the UK. This will require LMS systems to allow for new methods of ILL, such as Koha open source which is ready to support ISO18626. There is a danger however, that some LMS providers will gain a monopoly by refusal to include other LMS systems in their (subscription based) ILL agreements despite them using the same ISO protocols and standards. BLDSS may have to reduce costs as the customer base declines. There is a danger that less institutions will wish to be the keeper of the more expensive subscriptions. Publishers may increase costs to cover “loss.”


In summary: The academic world is filled with constant change and financial challenges and that is likely to continue. Libraries are becoming well versed in methods to control spending. We are now seeing the emerging impacts and consequences of our collective buying strategies of the past 10 years. However, this environment, along with the ethics of librarianship, fosters amazing creativity and innovation, and I look forward to seeing how academic libraries adapt and thrive.


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