A strong library is critical

A task force of librarians has been working hard to support core disciplinary needs and maintain the diversity of library collections in light of rising journal costs and University budget reductions, says University Librarian Elaine Westbrooks.

Elaine Westbrooks, University librarian and vice provost for University Libraries. (Jon Gardiner/UNC-Chapel Hill)
Elaine Westbrooks, University librarian and vice provost for University Libraries. (Jon Gardiner/UNC-Chapel Hill)

The University Libraries acquires and provides scholarly resources on behalf of the entire Carolina campus. In doing so, librarians daily navigate complex economic factors, including the rising cost of scholarly journals and high inflation rates. The University’s recent budget reductions have added a new challenge to the mix.

We spoke with Elaine Westbrooks, vice provost for University Libraries and University librarian, about these challenges, what they mean for the campus community and how the University Libraries is preparing to keep research, learning and clinical care moving forward.

Westbrooks addressed Faculty Council on Oct. 1 and has been invited to meet with the Faculty Executive Committee in a public session on Nov. 1. Westbrooks and her staff are also available to join departmental, lab and other meetings. Contact your liaison librarian or send a note to if you would like to arrange a meeting.

What’s the most important thing you want our community to understand about the current University Libraries’ environment and its financial outlook?

Let me start with the long view. A strong library is critical to sustaining Carolina’s status as a world-class public research institution. The Chancellor, the Provost and I all want to find a sustainable path forward for our libraries. That will take time, hard work and creativity. It is a challenge for all of higher education. I believe we have a real opportunity to provide national, even global leadership, and to take real action for the public good.

In the meantime, with fewer dollars due to budget cuts and increasing costs, we must take quick action to spend less on library materials. We are conducting that process thoughtfully and deliberately. Your liaison librarian should be your first stop for questions about how you can get the content you need, and our library staff will do everything they can to get you materials for research, teaching and patient care.

How did we get here?

Three financial issues have come together at the same time. One is the high cost of many journals and databases. Some titles can actually cost in the tens of thousands of dollars. The second factor is the outrageous annual inflation rate for these materials. We talked about these trends quite a bit when we severed our package deal with Elsevier last year. These are ongoing problems for all of higher education and for universities and research libraries everywhere.

Finally, the Library is managing a significant budget reduction as part of the University’s efforts to address the institutional budget. Collections are the single largest operational cost for libraries, so a cut to operating budgets means library collections will be reduced. We’re grateful that the Chancellor and Provost have provided some one-time funding, which will allow us to bridge these cuts over two years and lessen the impact on faculty and students.

Can you speak more about the decision-making process?

A task force of librarians representing a variety of expertise and disciplines spent much of the spring and all summer determining the most strategic way to make cuts. They reviewed usage data to see what is accessed most frequently on campus. They looked at pricing data, licensing agreements and publishers’ contracts to project price increases going forward. In some cases, there are other ways to get to the same content, so that would be a reason to discontinue.

Finally, they applied qualitative data to get the best list possible. We’re doing everything we can to support core disciplinary needs and especially to maintain the diversity of library collections across formats and disciplines. To support a research university like Carolina with such a broad mission, we cannot target any subject area or support one discipline at the expense of another.

What can you tell us about the specific cuts you’ll be making?

We are still finalizing which items we will have to cut and when, so I can’t give you a number or a list of titles, but I can say that the list will touch research, teaching and clinical practice across the board. These cuts are painful and not something that any librarian ever wants to do, but we take our responsibility seriously to be good stewards of resources on behalf of the entire University.

How can those doing research or teaching get more information about the resources that they use?

The Library has an amazing team of subject expert librarians who are wonderful assets to our campus community. These liaisons have been reaching out to the departments and units they work with to help them know what to expect. Honestly, we’re at a point where all of the materials we have are high priority. Every cut will be painful for someone. But liaisons want to hear from you about what you need. They are keeping track of this input and they can help you find alternatives for your research, teaching and other work.

How will the Library be providing help and assistance?

A modern library is much more than what’s on the shelf or in the subscription list, and I want to make it clear that we are always here to help.

For journal articles, we have ramped up partnerships in the Triangle with Duke, NC State and NC Central, as well as across the country. We’ve joined services like Reprints Desk and Rapid ILL that can get digitized articles to you very quickly — sometimes in just a couple of hours.

Over the last few years, we’ve been steadily changing the model for buying books from “buy everything just in case” to quickly buying something when it’s actually been requested, so we will be accelerating that practice. We also list open-access alternatives in the catalog so that you don’t have to seek them out on your own.

Could you talk more about the role of prices and inflation for libraries?

Even if the Library’s budget were steady, our purchasing power would erode by hundreds of thousands of dollars each year due to inflation. Without budget growth, we would eventually be making many of these cancellations, maybe just in a time frame of six, eight or ten years instead of two. It’s why I will always be an advocate for robust open access and for creating a more equitable and sustainable system of scholarly communications. That’s the only way to build resilient collections and to shelter library budgets from both funding cuts and cost increases.

Are there things that members of the Carolina community can do to help?

We’ve heard that question a lot, and the answer is a resounding yes. We’ve put together a list of ways to help because people are constantly asking how to advocate for us. What’s needed is a sufficient and sustainable funding model to reverse the trend of buying less and less for this campus.

After that, the most important thing everyone can do is to get informed about scholarly publishing and get active. Retain copyright in your research so it can be shared freely; don’t just sign it away to publishers who will sell your research back to us and pocket the profits. Publish in open access journals. Talk to your scholarly associations about their publishing contracts. Learn about our Sustainable Scholarship initiative. Start conversations about open access, open scholarship and open data. Invite a librarian to your laboratory, faculty meeting or organization. We have plenty of ideas and we want to partner with you to create a better future for everyone.