February 17, 2018

Notes from a Catastrophe: Easing the Pain of Budget Cuts | Peer to Peer Review

Barbara Fister, Peer to Peer ReviewWe’re pretty good at making cuts in our journal collection. After all, having done it three times in five years, we’ve had a lot of practice. But it’s not just a matter of having a system in place for providing subject lists with prices and usage data, we have studied the social dynamics of the institution and have built respect for the library (and the librarians) as key players in the institution’s social network. What follows are some observations on how social capital comes into play as we have gone through our latest round of cuts, along with some recommendations.

  •  Transparency: Cuts are easier if you have established a practice of being public about how you make collection decisions, what effect the increasing cost of journals and databases has had on your buying power, what your budget looks like and how you spend it. Then the need to make cuts will not come as a surprise and won’t be attributed to poor fiscal management or to wild theories about what the library is really up to.
  • Collegiality: Our faculty plays a major role in helping us chose what goes into our collection, so they need to participate in deciding what goes. Having a strong liaison program in place provides the personal communication network and sense of shared ownership of the library that helps decisions that are both sound and more easily accepted. At the same time, it’s wise to make it clear that the library reserves the authority to make final decisions. For many faculty, that will actually come as a relief, for reasons explained below.
  • Fairness: Make it clear every department has to sacrifice, but that sacrifice can’t be calculated by numbers alone. A chemistry department might cancel one journal and save the library $7000; chances are you’d have to cancel all the journals for a small department in the humanities to accomplish the same savings. That wouldn’t be an equitable sacrifice. Resist the desire departments may have to simplify the task by giving them a dollar target. They need to make a case based on need, not numbers. And make it clear to all departments that none of them are exempt, even hard-charging departments that may claim they need absolutely everything because they’re the most productive department on campus—or the disorganized ones that can’t get a meeting scheduled but might get around to it next year. Explain to them gently that next year is too late; if they don’t make cuts now, the library will have to do it for them. That usually gets their attention.
  • Expertise: If the faculty respect the librarians’ judgment in other things, such as teaching well, providing personalized information tailored to their research interests, solid service on campus committees, and a proven ability to keep on top of new developments in technology and emerging issues in publishing, they will be more accepting of your advice. Of course, this means promoting what you do well on a regular basis so they know you’re an expert. This is no time to hide your light under a bushel.
  • Local knowledge: Study the social networks on your campus. Each department has its own decision-making culture, so you can’t approach them all the same way and expect the same results. Some are more practiced at making decisions together than others are. Avoid letting any one individual, such as the department chair, decide on cuts for a subject area since they may not be as informed as they think. Junior faculty may feel vulnerable challenging a senior member of the department over the necessity for a particular database or journal, and very often they are more aware of trends in the field and may be teaching in new subject areas that are already inadequately represented. It’s wise to subtly offer back channels to communicate with newer hires to protect under-represented subject areas, and to stand up for them when needed.
  • Focus on what matters: Some faculty will need help shifting their focus from what resources that everyone knows are “important” to what resources are actually being used. Give them an opportunity to reflect on why something that seems essential to the discipline is gathering dust. Is it because students access it online? Are they citing only older articles in JSTOR because nobody has mentioned to them that currency is important? Is currency for that journal really that important? This is also a good opportunity for discussing curricular implications. Do current assignments actually accomplish the faculty’s critical thinking goals? Are there ways the library can offer more focused information literacy efforts to get across to students what matters for this discipline?
  • Make your own cuts first: Before meeting with departments, we went through newspapers, magazines, and standing orders with brutal ruthlessness. We were able to make enough cuts to things that librarians once considered essential to demonstrate that it could be done—and it made the first substantial contribution to reaching our budget goals.
  • Make suggestions: Faculty are busy people, and staring at a long list of journals can be mind-boggling. It doesn’t hurt to point out ones that are expensive but little used, ones that are available in open access within six months, or ones that relate to topics that were dear to the heart of a faculty member who retired ten years ago but which are no longer taught. Yellow highlighting on a list can help—so long as the faculty have a chance to defend and substitute other journals for the axe. We also gave them the option of cutting their book and video allocation instead of journals, though interestingly very few departments, even ones that are heavily dependent on journals, chose that option.
  • Take advantage of a teachable moment: Discuss with faculty how you see their students doing research. Help them understand how much full-text databases and the familiarity of Google have influenced undergraduate research practices. Talk about what’s behind the crazy escalation in the cost of journals. Tell them how to find journals they can publish in that are open access and why that may make their own research more likely to be cited. You could even make an opportunity to take your own stand—as we did when our library passed its own open access pledge.

Libraries exist in social systems, and the way in which they approach their work with the community they serve can have a positive influence in making it through hard times together. As endowments shrink and the stock market falls, social capital continues to hold its value—and, as you spend it, it can even grow.

Barbara Fister is a librarian at Gustavus Adolphus College, St. Peter, MN, a contributor to ACRLog, and an author of crime fiction. Her next mystery, Through the Cracks, will be published by Minotaur Books in 2010.

Barbara Fister About Barbara Fister

Barbara Fister is a librarian at Gustavus Adolphus College, St. Peter, MN, a contributor to ACRLog, and an author of crime fiction. Her latest mystery, Through the Cracks (see review), was published in 2010 by Minotaur Books.
Photo by Debora Miller