Why Aren’t Faculty Complaining about Academic Libraries Not Buying Books?

Column Editor:  Bob Holley (Professor, Library & Information Science Program, Wayne State University, Detroit, MI 48202;  Phone: 248-547-0306;  Fax: 313-577-7563)  <aa3805@wayne.edu>

I don’t understand why book-oriented faculty aren’t raising more of a stink about the changing patterns in collection development.  Most academic research libraries have drastically reduced their purchases of scholarly monographs as online resources of all types have taken an increasing percentage of the collection development budget.  I started my career when the rule of thumb was 60% for serials and 40% for books.  A quick calculation from the ARL statistics for 2007-2008 on monographs expenditures as a percentage of total library materials expenditures showed that the median percentage is 21% with a range from 6% to 43%.  For my own institution, Wayne State University, the percentage is 13%, a fact that influenced my choosing this topic.  I suspect that this percentage is now even less as most libraries have lost purchasing power during the recent economic difficulties.

I had expected these faculty, mostly in the Humanities and some of the Social Science disciplines, to be concerned about this decline in book purchases.  The common wisdom holds that many faculty still need books for their research since a full discussion of many topics requires more extensive discourse than a journal article.  These faculty should also be concerned that the decline in book sales will lead to fewer books being accepted for publication, mostly by university presses, because most publishers expect to sell a certain number of copies to justify selecting a manuscript for publication.  Faculty who publish in less popular areas and niche topics will be most affected and may encounter increasing difficulty in getting promoted without the “tenure” book.  A third reason, perhaps overlooked by some faculty, is that their students still need books to complete the assignments for their courses.

While I don’t have a definite answer to the question that I’m asking in this column, I have several plausible hypotheses.  The first is that perhaps faculty, contrary to the common wisdom, are making less use of published books.  Statistics show that book circulation is declining overall in research libraries.  As will be seen later, this reduction could mean that faculty are obtaining their books from other sources; but it could also mean that they are depending more upon journal articles and perhaps on substantive book-like materials available on the Internet as well as blogs, discussion lists, personal emails, and other similar Web forms of publication.  The greater use of URL’s instead of print sources in bibliographies lends some credibility to this hypothesis.

The trend toward patron-driven acquisitions of all types is another possibility.  Faculty aren’t complaining about the lack of books because the library is purchasing the books that they want or are getting them quickly enough through interlibrary loan.  According to the circumstances, these purchases could be through the conventional book jobbers, the out-of-print book market, print on demand, or eBooks.  This library strategy is therefore based upon satisfying the most powerful library clientele by giving them what they need when they want it.  As an administrator, I have sympathy for this decision; but it is based a bit upon the “I’m all right, Jack” theory of library service since it may overlook the other key group of users, students.  When I was discussing this issue in my collection development class last semester, one bright student asked about how this policy will affect the procrastinating student who needs a book the week before the term paper is due.  A few years ago, it would have normally been in the collection “just in case.”  Now, the deadline is too close to get the book “just in time,” especially since students seldom receive the priority processing commonly reserved for faculty requests.

The next explanation was the subject of my presentation at the 2010 Charleston Conference.  Faculty may be purchasing their own books because doing so is simpler than asking the library to do so.  With a wide choice of online booksellers, faculty can easily find and order materials much more easily than in the days of physical bookstores.  In addition, competition in the out-of-print book market has reduced the prices for many publications to the point that buying a personal copy has become much less expensive.  Anecdotally, a faculty member in one of my liaison areas told me that she never uses the library because she buys all the books she needs.  After giving this talk, which was a prelude to a more formal study, I was surprised at the support for my hypothesis that some faculty are asking the library to purchase only expensive items and those that are difficult to obtain from online booksellers.

My final explanation is that faculty in the disciples most likely to be supported by books are discouraged enough that they no longer think that complaining is worth the effort.  With this year’s 20% success rate of getting a tenured position in the Humanities, with the traditionally lower salaries, with the lack of outside grant funding and the perks that this support brings, they may be happy enough to have a full-time tenured or tenure track position.  Not finding the books that they need in the library may be a trivial concern as Humanities faculty look at the dismemberment of departments at universities like the University of New York at Albany.  (http://www.insidehighered.com/news/2010/10/04/albany)  Non-tenured faculty may be less likely to rock the boat even as they have greater need for books to complete the research needed for tenure.

While the lack of faculty complaints may make life easier for library directors, I worry that faculty silence is one more sign of the diminished importance of academic libraries.  Raised voices in the academic senate, picketing the administration building, and letters to the editor for increased library funding might not lead to more money but would show that some faculty still care about the library.