Library Issues

Editor: Richard M. Dougherty, University of Michigan.
Contributing Editors: Steve Marquardt, South Dakota State University; William Miller, Florida Atlantic University; Sarah Pritchard, Smith College; Mark Sandler, University of Michigan

Update December 1996

Academic Libraries on the Cusp

by Dennis Dickinson

Too many academic administrators hold out information technology as a nostrum for the ills of rapidly escalating library costs. In truth, information technology is a substantial, additional cost of doing business for libraries. It is, therefore, a significant part of the problem, not the solution. Anyone who views technology as a source of budget relief in the near term is in serious denial.

Today academic libraries exist in a complex and dynamic information environment where technological change is relentless. Both the role of the library within the academic institution and the internal operations of the library itself have been dramatically affected by the increasing availability of information in electronic form. Libraries are able to offer new services and improve existing ones based on rapidly changing technology for information storage, retrieval, and transfer. These momentous changes, however, have not meant a cost reduction for libraries.

Technological change in libraries is acknowledged to be one of the most difficult areas to plan for, to accommodate, and, especially, to predict. Nevertheless, technology has made and will continue to make a substantial impact on the delivery of library resources and services. A tension now exists between the library's traditional role as a place to consult books and journals, on the one hand, and demands to incorporate evolving, new technologies on the other. The academic library must develop multiple new initiatives while maintaining existing levels of traditional services, and the costs of doing so will be high. Those who hitch their hopes for reducing or even containing library budgets on technology are, therefore, likely to be disappointed; for trying to reduce costs by relying on information technology is like squeezing a balloon.

Culture Lag

While information is now available in many formats from widely distributed sources, and libraries more and more emphasize access over ownership, academic libraries must nonetheless continue to provide the same strong, current, and immediately accessible print collections that they always have. Despite growing reliance on other formats, no one predicts the immediate demise of the book as we know it. The wide availability of information from remote sources, therefore, cannot be allowed to weaken a continuing commitment to developing local print collections, for which there is currently no substitute.

Funding. Academic libraries in general have had the luxury of real increases in financial support in recent years, i.e., expenditures have increased more than inflation. At the same time, however, libraries are purchasing fewer books and a smaller fraction of the periodicals available each year. Part of the explanation for this seeming paradox is simply the sustained, relatively high rate of inflation in book and periodical prices, compounded by the proliferation of new periodicals. At least as important, however, is the fact that library budgets overall are not growing fast enough to keep up with the rapidly increasing costs of information technology. These substantial costs are, therefore, eroding other budget lines, especially those for traditional library materials and personnel, the two largest lines in most library budgets.

Ironically, if libraries continue to draw down material budgets to fund technology, they risk putting in place highly efficient and expensive mechanisms for sharing resources, while at the same time diminishing the very resources that they hope to share. The inevitable result of this cost shifting, continued long enough, will be the expeditious pooling of poverty.

Moreover, there is a significant difference among institutions, disciplines, and individuals in the rate that they can or will adopt and adapt to new technology. On the one hand, there remains considerable user resistance to the new technology; on the other, even the best "electronic journals" do not attract quality submissions. Authors, and to a large extent readers, who have a choice, apparently still choose print-on-paper. For academic libraries, this bias is reinforced by a preference for "real" journals on the part of promotion and tenure committee members. Given these conditions, reducing the amount of print material available in order to fund technological alternatives will disenfranchise an indefinitely large number of users and engender considerable hate and discontent.

Building requirements. Architects, administrators, and even a few librarians, sometimes argue that even the need for new library construction is obviated or reduced by the perception that "everything will be electronic anyway." Such wishful thinking, however, is founded on the same fallacy as underlies the belief that the book and periodical funds are interchangeable. It is also wrongheaded in another assumption; namely, that library space requirements will be reduced near term by substituting electronic technology for print-on-paper. In fact, an electronic workstation requires two to three times as much space as a reader station in a traditional library. Also the complexity of the technology demands considerable space for "electronic classrooms" in the library for teaching users how to navigate in cyberia.

Finally, we must remember that 30 years ago the same sorts of claims were made for the technological wonder of that day, microfilm. Yet the last 30 years have seen perhaps the largest boom in library building ever.

Staff and attitudes. Despite these stubborn realities, new and renovated academic libraries are already being downsized. Existing libraries are being forced to give up space to other functions on the assumption that access is replacing ownership as a means of providing information. There are, however, two immediate problems that must be overcome to avoid any deleterious effects. The first is a shortage of library staff to carry out the labor intensive collection management work required to actually achieve a no-growth collection without doing violence to the library's resource base. The second is attitudinal, and derives from a reluctance of some users, especially faculty, to accept the advantages of a relatively small but dynamic core collection of print materials supplemented by a wide array of easily accessible outside services and sources of information. The latter obstacle can only be overcome by successfully addressing the former and, in some extreme cases, by attrition.

Finally, another fundamental and continuing responsibility of an academic library is traditional reference service. Individual users still need to be guided by librarians in their appraisal of the range and extent of the library resources available to them for learning and research. Such service has relied and, to a considerable extent, will continue to rely on in-house, print-based collections.

Culture Change

Reference, though, is becoming a "layered product." In addition to these usual and customary services, libraries are moving toward a service intensive model that emphasizes retrieval and interpretation of information from all available sources. This exploits, to the fullest extent possible, the rapidly growing number of diverse, distributed information resources. The actual delivery of information to the user, as distinct from mere guidance to it, is now also a reasonable adjunct to traditional reference service. As the universe of available resources expands and libraries become more dependent on shared resources, it will be imperative to have substantially more and better trained library staff who can locate, select, retrieve, package, and in many cases, interpret, information for patrons.

New types of collections. In addition to the continuing costs of doing what they have always done, then, libraries assume a number of substantial new costs when they venture into information technology. The first and most obvious of these are the direct costs of computer hardware, software, maintenance, networks, telecommunications, service bureaus, data files, and specialized staff. Although less obvious and often overlooked, is the replacement of sometimes very large collections of long-playing phono records with audio compact discs (CDs). Many libraries are also either replacing film collections with videos, or spending relatively large amounts of money to build completely new collections of videos. The cost of any and all of the above are high; and they are driven by sudden and rapid changes in and diffusion of information technology. These costs, however, while significant, are by no means the only ones that libraries incur pursuant to the acquisition and use of technology.

Access to collections. While a library needs to have materials in its collections that meet the immediate needs of its primary clientele, it must increasingly augment its resources with access to external collections and services. The proliferation of citation databases has greatly expanded bibliographic access to information. Libraries must, however, be able to support the precipitous increase in demand for document delivery and interlibrary loan generated by the ready availability of such databases. Bibliographic access alone, without physical access to the document itself, is but a half-met promise. Most document delivery services are provided for a fee, but are still cost beneficial when compared to maintaining in-house resources (were it even possible for a single library to do so).

Of equal and growing importance is the provision of instruction for the use of these disparate information resources. Certain kinds of information are and increasingly will be available only in distributed, computerized databases. Many library users need to master the skills required to access this information independently. And at most institutions, librarians are the ones who are responsible for selecting and organizing networked information, and for teaching users to access it.

Increased demands on staff. Just keeping up with rapidly changing technology and today's applications is, however, a time-consuming effort. The increased demand on staff time occasioned by the need to master more and more technology in less and less time notwithstanding, many libraries, especially large ones, are seeing their staff reduced to pay the escalating cost of information technology. Ironically, the effective use of these expensive technological assets will require highly skilled, labor-intensive mediation by librarians. It will, therefore, be imperative to have sufficient, knowledgeable and well-trained library staff to assist and educate users so that they can become information literate, independent learners, and researchers.

In particular, providing access to increasing amounts of computerized information is imposing significant new responsibilities on librarians by default. It is now abundantly clear to working librarians that, popular opinion notwithstanding, students and other users of academic libraries simply cannot be assumed to have even basic computer skills, let alone the ability to use common productivity software such as word processors, spreadsheets, database managers, etc. As a consequence, users must often be instructed in the use of computers/software/networks before a librarian can even begin to explain the intricacies of a particular database. The situation is analogous to having to teach a library user how alphabetization works so that he/she can use a card catalog or printed index. The result is time consuming, inefficient, and frustrating for all concerned; and colleges and universities must find ways to address these problems other than letting them devolve upon librarians. Until and unless the do, librarians will continue to bear the brunt of training users in these areas.

This also means a greater need for staff development so that the librarians themselves are able to master more of the existing and to stay abreast of the rapidly changing technologies. It is all part of the service-oriented model library. The cost of additional staff and continual staff training will not be trivial; and it will not be recoverable from modest savings achieved by relatively small reductions in expenditures for books and periodicals that such a model might at first enable.

Influence of the World Wide Web

A recent ad for IBMinfoSage, "...a brand-new service that gives you a handle on the Information Revolution...a personalized online information resources that works for you." opens with the following: "The good news is there are five gazillion sources of information on the Internet. The bad news is there are five gazillion sources of information on the Internet." That pretty well sums it up.

Two years ago, when this article was originally written, probably no one could have predicted how fast the World Wide Web would develop. Certainly I did not. The seemingly exponential proliferation of Web sites, some of them with useful and important information, now afford at least the theoretical possibility for self-directed learners to explore a wide range of information without ever setting foot on a college or university campus, let alone in a library, provided they have a good Internet connection and a basic understanding of how to navigate the World Wide Web. The problem with this approach is that such cybernauts usually end up with a few grains of wheat amongst "endless bytes of chaff," as the IBM ad says. The sites they find may contain pages that are out of date, never completed, or represent work in progress or the electronic scribbles of someone who doesn't know the subject area.

Trying to make the Web efficient. Serendipitous discovery is an important part of exploring Web sites. End users of information can become their own guides to finding relevant information when it exists on the Web, relying on powerful search engines for an initial cut, and then painstakingly sifting through the somewhat less than a "gazillion" sources that remain in hopes of finding something useful. The problem with this approach is, of course, that it is an extravagant waste of time.

The obvious and familiar answer to the common complaint that there is too much of dubious value scooped up by powerful search engines is that librarians are cataloging what's on the Internet through various projects and services. This answer is correct so far as it goes, but underestimates the immensity of the Web and the value of some of the information it holds. Keeping track of burgeoning Web sites is time consuming and nearly impossible when approached on an individual basis. Libraries, therefore, must find ways to address the problem globally and systematically. No matter how it is done, however, it will require a great deal of time and effort on the part of librarians to make the Web an efficient information resource.

Upgrading needs. The Web has also accelerated and aggravated the problem of obsolescence and upgrading. Software got larger as it became more image-based. As the software became more graphical, on the desktop as well as on the Internet, end-users were forced to get better online connections to handle the increased bandwidth and more hard disk space to store the massive files.

Moreover, time spent learning a new computer system is money. Whenever a new system is installed or an old one upgraded, there is an unpredictable amount of fumble-time required to master it; and thus the costs are unpredictable as well. Microsoft's Windows 95 redefined the way many people work with their computer; but those who switch to the new operating system spend an inordinate amount of time extinguishing old habits and developing new ones. Adding insult to injury, hardware and software producers are reducing support for their products and charging for calls to their technical support lines.

Investing in new information technologies, therefore, can be a daunting process. Hidden costs arise from time spent learning how to make the computer work for the owner, troubleshooting hardware and software, and teaching colleagues and patrons how to use a new system. Hidden costs can be multiplied by unforeseen but necessary upgrades as part of the balancing act between software and hardware purchases. Upgrading existing software will, more often than not, require a hardware upgrade as well; and vice versa. Use of information technology, therefore, carries with it a significant downside risk of unpredictable amounts of time and money required for training, implementation, and maintenance.

Training needs. It is not surprising then, that librarians themselves perceive the need to stay technologically current as the most serious challenge they face today. Because libraries rely more and more on outside systems and services, staff members find it imperative to attend training sessions and refresher courses to keep up with frequent changes and enhancements. Failing that, there is a potential morale factor to be dealt with as librarians experience increasing difficulty and frustration in staying abreast of a rapidly changing field. The need to retrain existing staff and to hire highly qualified new staff will contribute significantly to higher operating costs for libraries.

Typically, maintenance on and upgrades to computer systems cost approximately 10 percent of the system purchase price per year. It seems reasonable then, that training for those who must interact with and interpret those systems for others should command at least 5 percent of staff costs per year; but few libraries are blessed with a staff development budget of that size.

Culture Shock

All indications are that the future will be the past on fast forward. Just now looming on the horizon, but gathering momentum, are changes in information technology the magnitude of which will severely challenge institutions and their libraries. The upgrade path will become steeper; the increments of change will become larger and far more expensive to accommodate.

Until now libraries have been confronted with more or less continuous, quantitative change; i.e., faster processors, denser storage media, etc. Coming on, however, are changes that will be discrete and discontinuous. These will require replacement of technology rather than merely incremental upgrades. Systems that rely on client-server architecture, graphical user interfaces, and, especially, multi-media served over the Web, represent significant departures from what has gone before and will require commensurate retooling and retraining. In the case of multi-media, for instance, even many existing networks and much of the equipment currently attached to them will prove to be completely inadequate.

Funding transitions. The nature of changes affecting libraries today, and the unpredictable rate at which new will supplant old technologies, make it necessary to continue the same level of support for traditional resources and services as has been provided in the past, if not more. At the same time libraries need to invest prudently in the acquisition of expensive, new and emerging technologies that will make it possible to greatly expand the kind and amount of support they offer their constituencies. There will not, during this period, be a direct, one-to-one trade-off such that a dollar previously spent to support technology being replaced can be shifted at a specific time to support its replacement. The result is that the cost for these transitions, which will continue for some time, will be high.

To meet these costs library budgets need to be recast to more accurately reflect the world in which academic libraries operate today. Since the life cycles of information technology are already short, and getting shorter, it is imperative that library budgets make provision for replacement of obsolete technology on a regular, recurring basis. Doing so, however, will disrupt the traditional budgetary practice of capitalizing library materials and equipment, and make difficult, if not impossible, the customary distinction between operating and capital costs. The rapid growth of information technology comes at substantial cost; and it complicates the budgetary process because such costs are not easily accommodated by standard categories and definitions. As a result, they are easily misunderstood and often underestimated.


The problem for academic decision makers is to separate the actuality of information technology from the potentiality, and the potentiality from the hype, and there is plenty of hype. Tom Sanville, Executive Director of Ohio-Link, a highly developed and sophisticated state-wide library network, wisely cautions those planning for information technology that they must not let the sizzle of their megablock vision blind them to the sludge of building block reality. That is sound advice. The actuality is that the virtual library is not here yet; and until it is we must continue to develop our physical libraries with their largely physical collections while awaiting and, more importantly, preparing for the millennium. Those who believe that information technology offers budget relief in the near term, therefore, are simply deluding themselves. Dennis Dickinson is College Librarian, Beloit College Library, Beloit, WI.

Further Readings

For an expansion and explication of many of the ideas presented above, see: Library Trends, 42(3) (Winter 1994) Library Finance: New Needs, New Models, Murray S. Martin, ed.

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