The global COVID pandemic has had major, immediate, and lasting impacts on academic libraries, and we may not know their full influence for years to come. The rapid shutdown of in-person services and nearly overnight transition to virtual-only operations, were perhaps only the most obvious changes in business-as-usual. Quickly afterwards, on most campuses, senior administrators began implementing budget cuts and cost-sav-ing measures throughout their institutions, including the library. These changes, while varying in degree from institution to institution, often thrust the libraries into a very pecu-liar spot: with all or most educational activities needing to be delivered online, libraries became all-virtual overnight, experiencing increased demand for digital content and support, while also being required to find immediate cost savings.
This moment forced library leaders to act fast and think creatively and pragmatically about how best to deliver services, while choosing where to allocate increasingly reduced funds, often based on information that might be changing day to day.
The libraries whose leaders responded to the survey offer a snapshot of a range of approaches to what was by all accounts a very unusual set of circumstances. Most—but not all—had to contend with significant budget cuts. Often without as much time as would be ideal, library leaders had to rapidly make decisions about where and what to cut, and how to redeploy people and funds. Print and one-time purchases were easier to cut, but for most institutions, no category was off limits.
The survey of library responses to COVID-related budget cuts illustrates a wide range of responses to this particular moment, from renegotiating contracts, to cancelling subscriptions, to shifting funds to internal digitization work. Over 40% of those institutions experiencing budget cuts of any size reported being likely to seek to unbundle a big deal; and nearly as many reportedly they already had.
Some campuses very intentionally chose not to undertake complex re-negotiation or unbundling—lack of bandwidth to deal with the analysis, negotiation, faculty outreach and finding alternative sources for content made this a difficult time. But many libraries described this moment as a useful way to put into action changes that had been in the works.
Looking ahead, many library leaders predict that the budget squeeze felt today will not disappear once the pandemic recedes. Even though the budget landscape is uncertain, they will continue to support open access initiatives, whether open infrastructure, open content, open access agreements, or the organizations which support the work of the open community in various ways, at levels comparable or higher than they do today. They will continue to renegotiate contracts that better align both with mission values and with the budgets they have available.
The actions captured in this study reflect difficult decisions made during a once-in-a-lifetime global crisis. This crisis put into stark relief the urgency of making digital scholarly content accessible for research and learning as well as most libraries’ continuing commitment to open initiatives, even in the face of financial challenges posed by the pandemic.