Librarians took a wide range of approaches to dealing with budget cuts, from renegotiating contracts, to cancelling subscriptions, to shifting funds to internal digitization work. Of those libraries who experienced “small” budget reductions (defined here as 9% or less), 45% were likely to seek to unbundle a Big Deal—and a quarter of respondents had already chosen to do so (Figure 4). Those whose institutions experienced major budget cuts (defined here as over 9%), were even more supportive of this option: 43% were likely to explore unbundling a Big Deal, and another 43% reported already having done so.
For some librarians, the fiscal urgency ushered in by COVID-related budget cuts permitted them to take actions that had already long been in the works. In one case, “this gave us the extra justification we needed” to initiate a re-negotiation with Elsevier. One public research university used the pandemic as an opportunity to revisit their Elsevier contract a year early, looking to either renegotiate the cost of the existing bundle or unbundle altogether. A private university library chose to re-negotiate with all major vendors with whom they had an annual spend of $150K or more.
A liberal arts college undertook a renegotiation with Elsevier, which they felt was successful because they were able to make clear that “we were ready to walk.”
“We were ready to walk.” —Liberal Arts college on why they were successful in renegotiation of their Big Deal.
In a similar vein, while unbundling Big Deals or pulling back on other publisher packages was of interest to many and possible for some institutions, several respondents noted that —ironically—the reasons for needing to unbundle were also acting to keep them in place, not least of which was the inability, due to lack of staff capacity, to take on the work of preparing for an unbundling project or to manage the potential additional ILL workload it could create. “We did look, using Unsub, to see if we should be breaking things up,” noted one. “But we had lost positions in the access services area—ILL and circ —and if we cut these things we needed to have enough people in the ILL to do the work to get those materials. It seemed like a bad time to increase the work, with fewer people there.”
For some institutions, COVID may have highlighted the need for more digital content; however, the ability to take transformative action, in the form of new content creation or new models was, for some, simply not practical in the short term.
At some institutions, the complexity and importance of Big Deals may have served to insulate them from these cuts. More than once, a librarian described the process of look-ing for what to cull from the collection, in search of budgetary savings: The easiest items to cancel were collections (rather than reducing staff); and within collections, one-time purchases, including monographs and independent journal titles. The challenge of unraveling the Big Deal was seen by some as expensive and time consuming, and some librarians noted that it was the wrong time to undertake a major shift that would require additional staff time to locate titles for faculty as needed, since there were fewer staff on hand to help.