Library Issues
Editor: Richard M. Dougherty, University of Michigan.
Contributing Editors: Mignon Adams, Philadelphia College of Pharmacy and Science; Eileen Fenton, University of Michigan; Steve Marquardt, South Dakota State University; William Miller, Florida Atlantic University; Maureen Pastine, Temple University; Sarah Pritchard, Smith College;
Vol. 18, No. 6 July 1998

An Open Letter to Provosts on Libraries
and Technology
Supporting Technology: Inprovements in Electronic Services Have Actually Increased Costs

An Open Letter To Provosts
on Libraries and Technology

by Robert Miller

With all the technological happenings in higher education, it seems like a good time to share some thoughts of a long-time library director on this topic. Some may be very obvious, but I am including them both for the record and because sometimes the obvious tends to be forgotten.

When I started in this business (too many years ago to acknowledge) computers were non-existent in most libraries, and where they could be found, they were considered almost playthings. Today, they are the backbone of library service and increasingly of library information resources. Our library is highly dependent on both local computers and on network access—the Internet and its likely successors. In the area of hardware, the variety of needed equipment is rapidly expanding—no one really even thought about scanners and digital cameras a few years ago, and today they are essential. Moreover, advances in power and features seem to occur almost monthly—the new PC of 12 months ago is considered obsolete by many. The challenges this environment brings are multiple, but none more trying than determining when upgrading and/or replacement are really functionally necessary and when the demands are largely based on having the latest technology. Our staff and users need to understand that the latest technology is not always necessary or fiscally responsible. I might add that your office also needs to appreciate this strategy when complaints are heard.

Software Upgrades and Replacements
The same kinds of problems exist with software. Given the major advances in technological capabilities, our integrated library system will undoubtedly require periodic upgrading and even replacement. The needs for lower-level applications software is also expanding beyond the traditional word processing and spread sheets into products such as database, desktop publishing, hypertext, graphics and web-based authoring systems. Obviously, standards will be set, but faced with the frequent marketing-based upgrades some programs are subject to, it is important to determine whether both new products and upgrades are functionally necessary or merely desirable in principle. Complaints from staff in this area are inevitable, but are essentially the cost of doing business.

The rapid pace of change in technology highlights the importance of ongoing research and development to evaluate both products and the potential for service enhancements. The ad hoc basis on which this is currently being done needs to be formalized and adequately funded if it is to be efficient and effective.

Maintaining Currency
Of course, even with the most responsible management, the costs of maintaining appropriate currency in hardware and software are considerable. Failure to meet these costs is a disservice to our users and negatively affects the efficiency of our operations. It’s not just purchase costs that are involved. The acquisition of new hardware and software inevitably involves training and transition costs. While these are particularly true of major systems changes, they are inherent in any change. Finally, there are maintenance costs. While contracts for such services are commonplace for hardware, in all cases the cost effectiveness of such an arrangement needs to be carefully considered on a case-by-case basis.

For our users, the library has always represented information resources, traditionally books and journals, and in recent years electronic resources, particularly as accessible through the Internet. We are currently in the beginnings of a transitional period: locally held books and journals continue to be of major importance for virtually all of our users, but increasingly electronic resources, sometimes duplicating materials in print are being requested, indeed demanded. The library’s challenge is to accommodate both types of needs, even when this involves essentially paying for the same information twice. Unfortunately, there will increasingly be instances where the level of use and sound economics can not justify this dual approach, which will leave some users unhappy. Their understanding and yours in this type of situation is essential.

Access vs. Ownership
One interesting phenomenon of electronic resources is that frequently we do not buy them as we do books and journals: we merely pay for access to the resources. Thus, while the costs may be great, in many cases they are not capital expenditures for items that we own for as long as the physical medium lasts. We should probably rethink the reporting of acquisitions expenditures, distinguishing those for resources, print or electronic that we actually purchase and those we merely buy access to or license. In these cases, when we stop paying, we lose access to the information, and our past expenditures are truly sunk costs. This situation is complicated by those licenses that provide for charging by use, the so-called per drink model. This makes our annual budgeting very difficult. Finally, the licenses themselves are sometimes legal mazes, and it behooves both the library and the university’s legal office to remain current with developments in this area.

While the library has traditionally done a very modest amount of publishing, we are increasingly getting involved with digitizing information, print, graphic and artifactual and making the results accessible to users on and off campus. This is bringing with it a host of technical and more importantly legal issues on copyright and intellectual property rights generally. This latter area will be a real challenge to both the library and the legal office.

If technology is changing the nature of the library’s information resources, it is just as dramatically affecting our service face, particularly in light of our users’ expectations. The library is increasingly proactive in identifying and responding to user needs for specialized services such as current awareness services and document delivery. It is clear that we will become more actively involved in various aspects of both teaching and research as both areas utilize electronic resources in their work. A real partnership is developing on several fronts to improve the effectiveness of the university’s work.

In years past, the needs of library users were really quite generic, consisting chiefly of books and journals. That is no longer true. In fact the needs of various segments of our clientele are increasingly specialized. A very few faculty require access to very expensive databases. A small research team in physics makes intensive use of very high priced journals, but only for the duration of a specific grant project. An historian needs microfilm of an extensive archive. We must begin to give serious thought to methods of recovering or at least sharing the costs for such highly specialized services with a very limited market. Otherwise, if such services are introduced, our users and we will face a gradual denigration of those traditional services that are still needed by many.

Up to this point I have attempted to avoid talking money, though it is obviously a critical factor. These remarks are not a pitch for specific dollars, a blank check or the use of some formula. Rather, I want to stress the importance of university policies and practices in budgeting and finance that are appropriate to the new environment we face.

The most important factor in supporting technology however is people. The nature of library people is changing. The sterotypical knowledgeable, bookish librarian, the pleasant service desk assistant, the efficient cataloging clerk of the 1950s & 60s have found their work dramatically affected by technology. In all areas of library work many more skills are required. As with the teaching faculty, the university needs the best in the library. To attract and retain such people, we must have salaries and a working environment that are competitive. Staff classification schedules and indeed the library’s internal class system needs to be carefully reevaluated in the light of the new environment. Moreover, much greater attention must be paid to the training and development of our people. We currently spend 10 to 15 percent on maintenance of our capital resources. While money alone is certainly not enough, we must be prepared to spend the same kind of percent of our salary budget for the ongoing development of our most important resource, people. Only with this kind of investment can we assure that our staff remain current and are the best they can be.

We live in very exciting times, with great potential for expanding the horizons of teaching and research and making them more effective. The challenges of the years ahead in this area are not easy, and meeting them will not be inexpensive. Failure to do so, however, would cheat our students and faculty and could do real harm to the university long run.—Robert Miller is Retired Director of Libraries, Notre Dame University

Supporting Technology: Improvements in Electronic Services Increase Costs

by Ron Force

College and university administrations face a daily financial struggle to install, operate, and upgrade sophisticated information systems and call for additional funding to meet the challenges. Concurrently, trustees, boards of education, politicians, and pundits proclaim the coming of the information age in education, and call for more rapid progress in integrating information technologies into the teaching and learning process. The two viewpoints clash, however, because they proceed from different assumptions and goals.

Educators and Administrators: Different Views
The academic community wishes to move ahead with the most modern technologies, but sees them as an enhancement to the traditional process of education, a valuable adjunct to the interaction of professor and student, used to broaden the resources available and supplement the facilities of local laboratories and libraries. If equipment, technicians, instructional designers, and electronic information resources are necessary, they should be funded as an addition to the present department roster of professors, teaching and research assistants, and secretaries. As academics see it, faculty members should supply the disciplinary knowledge, which is then translated into electronic form by technical assistants supplied by the campus information resources staff.

Those pushing the more rapid integration of technologies envision a different future. They see the goal as being similar to the “reengineering” process in private industry where technology is directly substituted for labor, allowing for increased productivity by downsizing the academic labor force and having fewer faculty teach more students at a lower unit cost.1 Students will engage in more independent learning, mediated by software, and guided by the advice of faculty members who may be remote from the student’s location. This change in teaching and learning will alleviate the need to construct additional campuses and classrooms. Electronic libraries will be free on the Internet as authors post documents for universal use. Colleges and universities can use the capital and personnel savings to pay for the needed hardware and technical support and still be able to reduce budgets substantially. If the academic institutions don’t do this, private enterprise will leap into the higher education field and take themarket share by offering a superior product at a lower cost.2

Marketplace View
Those pushing the latter view may be doomed to disappointment. Recent studies have cast doubt on productivity increases in industry due to technology, particularly in the service industries. Economists have been unable to document any productivity increase in the U.S. related to the use of information technology, despite massive investments.3 Rather, employers have used labor policy changes to downsize employment rolls, reduce pay and benefits, and work the survivors harder, often using laptops, pagers, cellular phones, faxes, and other high-tech accoutrements to extend the workplace and the working day.4 The productivity statistics unfortunately are unable to distinguish between greater efficiency and greater effort. However, critics of these studies claim that because technology has been adopted so widely throughout business, competitive advantages from the use of information technology have been a wash. The productivity benefits instead have flowed to the consumer as improved products and services.5

A View from the Library
An example from library technology may illustrate this effect. To some extent, libraries have already experienced one productivity revolution through technology. In the 1970s nationwide bibliographic utilities such as OCLC and WLN eliminated the jobs of many catalogers, card editors, filers, and reclassified many jobs down the pay scale. Automated acquisition systems worked similar changes in purchasing departments. Libraries could have continued to deliver traditional library services at a much lower cost, however the introduction of this technology initiated two decades of continuous change and improvement in the delivery of library services. Instead of simply using the technology to print catalog cards at a lower cost, static card catalogs gave way to information systems offering up catalogs from all over the world, delivered to the office, 24 hours a day. As computer technology became more ubiquitous, bibliographic databases left the realm of the expert searcher at hundreds of dollars per search to be accessible without direct charge to any undergraduate. Document delivery has progressed from manual interlibrary loan, taking weeks or months, to electronic delivery within 24 hours, or instant full-text to the desktop computer.

These improvements in service have actually increased costs, rather than reduced them, for the following reasons:

Too often, the technology proponents calculate the cost-benefit tradeoffs using initial investment costs only, and forgetting the substantial ongoing (often mandatory) upgrade costs.

Although libraries have been able to reduce the labor involved in traditional services, the proliferation of new technologies has created a demand for additional computer and network personnel. The Department of Labor projects the need for 100,000 additional computer personnel each year, but only 25,000 are annually produced by the U.S. educational system, a number that is actually declining.6 The shortage has caused salaries to soar, but paradoxically, has not caused additional people to enter the field. Libraries are replacing $20,000/year clerks with technicians who charge two to three times that salary—if they’re available. These costs, prevalent throughout the industry, will eventually be reflected in the entire technology chain. As one information manager commented: “Management always reads about technology costs going down, but now costs are going up, and it’s hard for them to digest this”.7

Most university administrators are familiar with the annual price increases for journal subscriptions, and have hopes that online resources can contain these increases. At the same time, publishers are moving to corner the market in Internet publishing. While fair use is well established in the print on paper medium, publishers are using licensing agreements and attempting to change copyright laws to give them increased control over their intellectual property. Tighter control by publishers over electronic resources can lead to monopoly pricing. Increased prices for online resources are defended as “value-added,” with which most librarians would agree. There’s no doubt that having the Encyclopedia Britannica available on every campus computer is a great benefit; however, the library’s budget was scaled to providing one paper copy at $700, rather than multiple copies in every office, dorm, and apartment—the campus-wide license for $8,000-10,000 per year.

The electronic revolution has produced profound changes in the way campus information is structured and delivered. Although originally conceived as an economy measure, the computer has generated new services and concepts about the nature of library services, rather than cutting absolute costs. We can expect the future of the “Virtual University” to follow a similar course.—Ron Force is Dean of Library Services, University of Idaho.

1William F. Massy and Robert Zemsky “Using information technology to enhance academic productivity” ( ), Educom, 1995.
2“The new university: a tough market is reshaping colleges,” Business Week, December 22, 1997
3“Productivity: lost in cyberspace,” The Economist, v. 344, n. 8034, September 13, 1997, p.72.
4“Technology and the 24-hour day” Harvard Business Review, V. 74, n. 6, Nov-Dec 1996, p. 85 .
5Bob Lewis, “Computer backlash picks up speed, but arguments from critics are flawed” Infoworld, Vol. 19, no. 50, December 15, 1997, p. 84.
6“Filling High-Tech Jobs is Getting Very Tough,” The Wall Street Journal, December 1, 1997, p. 1.
7Ibid, p.1.

Mountainside Publishing, Inc. Library Issues: Briefings for Faculty and Administrators (ISSN 0734-3035) is published bimonthly beginning September 1980 by Mountainside Publishing Co., Inc., 321 S. Main St., #213, Ann Arbor, MI 48104; (734) 662-3925. Library Issues, Vol. 18, no. 6. ©1998 by Mountainside Publishing Co., Inc. Subscriptions: $75/one year; $140/two years. Additional subscriptions to same address $25 each/year. Address all correspondence to Library Issues, P.O. Box 8330, Ann Arbor, MI 48107. (Fax: 734-662-4450; E-mail: Subscribers have permission to photocopy articles free of charge for distribution on their own campus. Library Issues is available online with a password at

last modified: