The Digital Collections Paradigm: A Conundrum?

The Digital Collections Paradigm: A Conundrum?

Matthew Ballard October 8, 2021

Yesterday I received an email about the work of major print deselection projects in the wake of campus-wide initiatives. Significant reductions in physical collections to make space for other departments in the library or directives from an administrator who sees books as a thing of the past. Reading through the responses got me thinking about my own experiences over the last 10+ years with the management of print collections amidst an increasing emphasis on digital resources. So I thought I’d “jot” down some of those thoughts.

During my seemingly long tenure in academic libraries, though library school feels like only a short time ago, each institution I worked for was grappling with a long overdue weeding project. In each case, they didn’t have time or too many conflicting priorities kicked it to the bottom of the list. So what should be an ongoing aspect of collection management becomes this unmanageable, dusty, underutilized, and burdensome nightmare for staff and faculty alike.

As we continue to battle against the idea of the print collection as a cornerstone of the “antiquated library,” we have not done ourselves any favors with presentation. Deferred maintenance only guarantees that our stakeholders will see the collection, and print resources by extension, as antiquated. What comes next is a push for renewed emphasis on the power of robust digital collections, resources that are easy to access, and best of all, consume a much smaller physical footprint.

The recent news that UNC Chapel Hill is preparing to cut $5,000,000 from their collections budget over the next two years is a stark reminder of the unpredictable nature of library funding at academic institutions. Trading the massive footprint of a physical collection in favor of a more expansive collection of digital resources enhances the complexities of access vs. ownership, licensing restrictions, digital rights management, annual inflation increases, and an ever changing vendor market. From a financial perspective, the transition of funds from print acquisitions to e-resources is not 1:1. And although some publishers offer eBook pricing that is comparable to print, many charge three or four times more per digital title. On top of that, such a transition requires that libraries move away from perpetual ownership of a tangible object to perpetual “ownership” of rights to access a title.

In past experience, the annual budget process is a carefully crafted production where numerous departments play a supporting role to the stars of the show; athletics, campus life, and enrollment. The library is, in many cases, relegated to a non-speaking part and expected to provide more with less…and therein lies the conundrum…

If we desire to move away from print collections in favor of digital, there must be a long-term financial commitment to that shift. Such a commitment might be demonstrated by annual budget increases of at least 3-5% (the average annual inflation increase), allocating funding for new positions (because managing digital collections is a time-consuming responsibility), and guaranteeing access to technology that supports the work.

Overall, flat budgets year-over-year represent a net decrease in purchasing power for institutions that have more than 75% of their materials budgets tied up with subscriptions and ongoing commitments. Beyond the work of individual libraries, the necessity of consortial purchasing and license negotiating will only increase. The challenge is that such work is time consuming in an environment where libraries are pushing for front-end engagement to demonstrate vibrancy, relevance, and impact.