In contemplating how to take advantage of electronic publications, universities and their libraries face two problems. First, they face decisions about scaling back costly conventional operations so as to make resources available for acquiring electronic licenses. Second, the cost savings occur in a variety of ways, each with its own history, culture, and revenue sources. Although many boards of trustees and their presidents might like all the funds within their institutions to be fungible, in fact they face limitations on their ability to reduce expenditures in one area so as to spend more in another. If donors or legislatures are more willing to provide funds for buildings than for electronic subscriptions, then the dollar cost of a building may not be strictly comparable to the dollar cost of electronic subscriptions. Universities are investing more in campus networks and computer systems and are pruning elsewhere as the campuses become more digital. The following paragraphs consider how conventional operations might be pruned so as to allow more expenditure on electronic information products.
Conventional Library Costs
It is possible that some universities will view electronic access to quality academic journals as sufficiently attractive to justify increasing their library budget to accommodate the electronic subscriptions when publishers seek premium prices for electronic access. Some universities place particular emphasis on being electronic pioneers and seem willing to commit surprising amounts of resources to such activities. Other universities owe a debt to these pathfinders for sorting out what works. For most institutions, however, the value of the electronic journals will be tested by middle management's willingness to prune other activities so as to acquire more electronic journals. The library director is at the front line for such choices, and an understanding of the basic structure of the library's expenditures will help define the library director's choices.
Figure 6.3 provides a summary picture of the pattern of costs in conventional academic libraries. The top four blocks correspond to the operating budgets of the libraries. Acquisitions account for about a third of the operating budget. To give a complete picture, the bottom section of the figure also accounts for the costs of library buildings. The cost of space is treated as the annual lease value of the space including utilities and janitorial services. The total of the operating budget plus
the annualized cost of the building space represents a measure of the total institutional financial commitment to the library.
Library management typically has control only of the operating budget. Let's suppose that, on average, campus intranet licenses to electronic journals come at a premium price, reflecting both the electronic database distributor's costs as well as adjustments in publishers' pricing behavior as discussed above. The library, then, confronts a desire to increase its acquisition expenditure, possibly as much as doubling it.
A first choice is to prune expenditures on print so as to commit resources to digital materials. Some publishers offer lower prices for swapping digital for paper and in this case, swapping improves the library's budget. Some publishers may simply offer to swap digital for print at no change in price. However, many publishers may expect a premium gross price for digital access on the campus intranet. The library manager may seek to trim other acquisition expenditures so as to commit to more digital access. For several decades, academic libraries have been reducing the quantity of materials acquired so as to adjust to increases in prices.
The possibility of substantial cuts in the quantity of acquisitions so as to afford a smaller suite of products in electronic access seems unappealing and so may have limited effect.
A second possible budget adjustment is to prune technical service costs. The costs of processing arise from the necessity of tracking the arrival of each issue, claiming those that are overdue, making payments, adjusting catalog records, and periodically binding the volumes. If the electronic journal comes embedded in a database of many journals, the library can make one acquisition decision and one payment. It need have little concern for check-in and the claiming of issues. Testing the reliability of the database will be a concern, but presumably large database providers have a substantial incentive to build in considerable redundancy and reliability and will carefully track and claim individual issues. The library will avoid binding costs. The library will likely have some interest in building references to the electronic database into its catalog. Perhaps the database vendor will provide suitable machine readable records to automate this process.
A third possibility is the library's public service operations. Until a substantial quantity of materials are available and widely used via network, the demand for conventional library hours, reference, and circulation services may change only modestly. In 1996, one-third to one-half of the references in my students' essays were to World Wide Web sources. However, these sources generally were complements of conventional sources rather than substitutes for them. As frontline journals become commonly accessible by campus networks, the demand for conventional library services may decline. For example, campuses that operate departmental and small branch libraries primarily to provide convenient access to current journals for faculty might be more likely to consolidate such facilities into a master library when a significant number of the relevant journals are available on the Net. These changes are likely to take a number of years to evolve.
A fourth possibility concerns the cost of library buildings. When journals are used digitally by network, the need for added library space declines. Libraries will need less stack space to hold the addition of current volumes. In many larger libraries, lesser used, older volumes are currently held in less expensive, off-site facilities, with new volumes going into the prime space. The marginal stack space, then, is off-site, with costs of perhaps $.30 per volume per year for sustaining the perpetual storage of the added volumes. Replacing a 100-year run of a journal with an electronic backfile ought to save about $30 per year in continuing storage costs at a low-cost, remote storage facility. Reductions in the extent of processing and in public services will also reduce requirements for space.
The library building expenses typically do not appear in operating budgets, so saving space has no direct effect on the library budget. The capital costs of buildings are frequently raised philanthropically or paid through a state capital budget, keeping the costs out of the university current accounts. Even utilities and janitorial services may appear in a general university operating budget rather than within the library account. Savings in building costs will accrue to those who fund
capital projects and to university general budgets but often not to the library operating budget. University presidents and boards may redirect their institutions' capital funds to more productive uses. Of course, the interests of philanthropy and the enthusiasm of state legislators may pose some limit on the ability to make such reallocations. Moreover, library building projects occur relatively infrequently, say every 25 years or so. The savings in capital may not be apparent for some time or, indeed, ever if capital budgets are considered independently of operating budgets. Library buildings, particularly the big ones in the middle of campuses, come to play a symbolic role, an expression of the university's importance, a place of interdisciplinary interaction, a grand presence. Because symbols are important, the master library facility will continue to be important. The marginal savings in building expense will probably be in compact or remote storage facilities and in departmental and smaller branch libraries. Digital access ought then to save the larger campus community some future commitment of capital, but the savings will be visible mostly to the president and board.
A fifth possibility is savings in faculty subscriptions. In law, business, and other schools in which faculty have university expense accounts, faculty may be accustomed to paying for personal subscriptions to core journals from the accounts. If the university acquires a campuswide network license for such journals, the faculty members may rely on the campus license and deploy their expense accounts for other purposes. By adjusting the expense account downward in light of the offering of campus licenses for journals, the university may reclaim some of the cost of the journals. On those campuses and in those departments in which faculty members do not have expense accounts and in which personal copies of core journals are necessary for scholarly success, the faculty salaries might be adjusted downward over a course of time to reflect the fact that faculty may use the campus license rather than pay for personal subscriptions. Indeed, when the personal subscriptions are not deductible under federal and state income taxes, the cost of subscriptions to the faculty in after-tax dollars may be greater than the cost to the university using before-tax dollars. As a result, a shift to university site licenses for core journals should be financially advantageous for faculty and the university.
In sum, the university may find a number of ways to economize by shifting to digital journals distributed by network. Although direct subscription prices may go up in some cases, the university may trim technical and public services, save space, and offer more perquisites to faculty at some saving in cost.