This week’s staff development session gave the opportunity to hear from Hazel Woodward, Cranfield University Librarian talking about the impact of the economic downturn on academic libraries.  The session was based on her presentation at the Association of Subscription Agents Conference earlier this year (the slides from the presentation are available at

Surveying the landscape and prospects for HE, taking in the 2010/11 Hefce budget cut of £449 million, through key points from the Higher Ambition report and then turning to the CIBER report ‘Challenges for academic libraries in difficult economic times’ there is a clear picture of change for HE libraries.  With standstill or reducing budgets and with e-resource budgets taking up an ever-increasing proportion of library budgets it is clear that there are major challenges over the next few years.

Woodwood slide economic downturn and libraries

Slide from Hazel Woodward presentation to ASA

As someone fairly new to academic libraries but with some experience of reducing budgets from a public library perspective it is interesting (to me at least!) to compare how the different sectors are approaching the challenges of reducing budgets.

The details of the CIBER survey indicate that academic libraries are more likely to react to budget pressures by reducing staffing (than public libraries) although I’d suspect that this may be because academic library staffing establishments have been rising across the past few years while public libraries have been reducing their staff year on year so may have less scope now for reductions.

69% of survey respondents also expect to spend the same or less on resources and with resource prices rising at higher than inflation a standstill budget represents a reduction in real terms.  It seems clear that there is a growing disquiet with the way that resource budgets are consuming an increasing proportion of library budgets, with e-resources from the major suppliers being a large part of that budget and with concern at how much print stock is inactive.

What I do find intriguing is the slide from the survey that looks at the trade-off analysis and shows that senior librarians would prefer to cut resources or services rather than cut staff.   It would be interesting to see what answer academics and users might give to this question as it goes to the heart of how much of the value of a library is tied up in its collections, services and expertise.

Slide from CIBER report Making Cutbacks

Within the public library sphere library budgets have seen frequent reductions for much of the past decade and the approach has been one where discretionary spending has been cut, where opening hours have reduced, libraries have closed and book funds have reduced.  Where possible income-generating and children’s library stock budgets have often been protected at the expense of other stock such as adult non-fiction.

Public libraries have also seen substantial changes in their staffing.  Flatter structures have been introduced by taking out tiers of middle managers.  Management Teams have reduced in size as managers are given broader ranges of responsibility.  Public libraries have also seen a very significant loss of more experienced staff in specialist roles.  Many have lost Music and Reference specialists, often losing staff with decades of irreplaceable experience.  Bibliographical services teams have seen the numbers of qualified librarians within them reducing, cataloguers becoming an endangered species and specialist Library IT roles reducing as Library IT roles are being taken over by Corporate IT services.

While some academic libraries have started doing this they maybe aren’t as far along the road of making these types of staffing changes and it will be interesting to see whether over the next few years academic libraries start to adopt similar approaches.

Both sectors are also looking at Shared Services, the concept of sharing services (often support services) between organisations as a way of reducing costs.  But there is a difference in that whilst the HE sector is a competitive environment public libraries aren’t (theoretically at least) competing with each other.  Although with benchmarking, CIPFA statistics, a universal library card and so on, I’m not sure that public libraries don’t actually compete with each other.  Certainly there is a long history of users on the margins of London boroughs using neighbouring boroughs library services.  With Shared Services opening up the possibility of library services (or elements of them) being delivered collaboratively or even taken over by other libraries that would seem to be an option that could be taken up in either sector.

It will be interesting to see over the next few years how academic libraries will respond to the economic pressures and whether they will take similar or different approaches to budget reductions whilst delivering relevant services to their users whose expectations are increasing and changing.