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3 Questions on Academic Library Spending to the Scholar Who Wrote the Book on University Budgets


Professor Andrew Comrie reached out after reading my piece, How Do Academic Libraries Spend Their Money? In his book, Like Nobody’s Business: An Insider’s Guide to How US University Finances Really Work (Open Book Publishers, 2021), Andrew digs into academic library budgeting.

I asked if Andrew would be willing to synthesize some of his findings in this space, and he graciously agreed.

Q1:  Overall, how do academic libraries allocate their budgets? What are some of the trends related to academic library spending that a student of higher education should understand?

Based on IPEDS data, university library budgets are apportioned quite consistently, with roughly 60 percent going to personnel and operations and the other approximately 40% going to acquiring resource materials. About three-quarters of the materials budget goes to ongoing subscriptions, the bulk of which are scholarly journals, while the other quarter is spent on one-time acquisitions, such as new books. The budget challenge for libraries is that while their budgets have roughly kept pace with general inflation (at least at bigger institutions but less so at smaller ones), their subscription costs have seen much steeper increases for decades.

Q2: Can you help us understand academic library budgets within the broader context of university budgets?  How is the story of institutional spending on libraries changing?

Library expenditures as a percent of the overall university budget have seen a remarkably steady decrease to less than half of what they were in the 1980s, about 3.5% then versus about 1.5% in 2017. Bear in mind that other education-related priorities of the university have also shifted in importance over that time, most significantly the share spent on student success. Of course, the internet has led to massive changes in information accessibility and the everyday role of the library. Many libraries have also freed up physical space with the shift to digital resources, with some space converted into study areas and special classrooms. When library deans talk to provosts about their budget, all these topics may come up, but I’d be surprised if subscription costs are not the most commonly discussed issue.

Q3: Does the academic library financial story mirror the broader higher education narrative of inequality, stratification, and concentrated wealth? In other words, are some academic libraries highly privileged from a financial standpoint, where the majority are struggling?  Or is there a different way to make sense of the academic library and resources story?

The short answer is probably yes – as goes the university’s overall resources, so goes the budget for most of its units, including the library. It is possible that library deans or the Association of College and Research Libraries know of a study aimed at exactly this issue. I think the broader issues surrounding the evolving role of the university library are also important, and, for example, they will be seen quite differently at an elite private research university versus a small to medium public comprehensive campus.

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