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When Academic Library Budgets Make the National News

The issue of rising journal subscription costs in a climate where academic library budgets are primarily flat or in a state of decline, is well-documented and oft-discussed amongst librarians (see, for example, these articles in Library Journal and PLOS One). Yet it is debatable the extent to which academics and students are engaged with this issue. And the possibility of the public-at-large caring? Almost unthinkable.

Meanwhile, in Canada, the national public broadcaster recently ran three stories on academic journal subscriptions over the course of one week. It all began with a report that Memorial University (MUN) will be cancelling thousands of journal subscriptions due to the rising cost of subscriptions coupled with a weakened Canadian dollar and stagnant library budget. This was followed with two subsequent stories, one from the vantage point of outraged MUN graduate students and another from the vantage of Ryerson University Library and Archives, which also reports that it is facing a similar situation to MUN.

This news coverage is likely more reflective of the state of public services in Canada than Canadian public sentiment: the CBC ran similar kinds of stories as at tactic to draw attention to its own budgetary woes and service cuts in the spring in the run-up to the federal election. Public news coverage is therefore being used in Canada as a tactic to galvanize public into protecting publically funded services. This arguably worked for the CBC, whose funding ultimately became an election issue of some significance, but it is to be determined if this kind of media coverage can have similar effects for academic libraries.

Perhaps what is most revealing is what these news stories reveal about how those they are meant to galvanize – the scholars and students that rely on academic journal articles on a regular basis – react to the news that these resources will be cut. In the reporting, MUN faculty liken the cancelling of journal subscriptions to shutting off the lights in library buildings, naming specific journals they will miss and then blaming the library’s consultation process. MUN graduate students rightfully question MUN’s spending priorities and cite administrative bloat as the source of the library’s spending woes.

As the recent report from Ithaka S+R explores, how scholarly communication relates to the roles and responsibilities of academic libraries is very much in flux. Many librarians, including those at Ryerson cited in one of the CBC articles, continue to position open access and advocacy work by students and scholars on how funds are allocated at their institutions to help alleviate the ongoing pressure on library budgets. Students and faculty are increasingly vocal about what they see as questionable funding priorities in higher education today, such as the reliance on precarious teaching labor, administrative bloat, and, in the US, over-investment in athletics. It remains to be seen, however, how students and scholars can be induced to attend to the connection between the more complex interplay between institutional spending, the scholarly communications landscape and their libraries’ budgets – let alone take ownership of and advocate directly on these issues. As the news out of Canada suggests, however, elevating library budgets to the national news may be a good way to start.

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