While the focus of this SPARC survey was specifically to assess the impact of COVID-related budgetary constraints on academic libraries, respondents made clear that the impact went far beyond questions concerning collections, touching all parts of their operations.
Respondents were asked to rank their “most pressing concerns—beyond the health and safety of staff and library users—about the impact of COVID on your library.” Loss of staff and cuts to licensed content were ranked first and second, far ahead of the other options offered, including inability to circulate print, reductions in support for open initiatives and loss of staff due to furloughs. But there were some interesting differences among respondents from different types of institutions.
While libraries at US doctoral institutions were more likely to be concerned about their inability to circulate print collections, non-doctoral institutions and Canadian institutions ranked “other” much higher (third and first place respectively). Among the things they described as concerns were the impact of community-wide decreases on the purchasing power of their consortium; re-prioritizing the collections budget to meet demand for pedagogical tools and content, including streaming video and audio resources; and keeping pace with quickly changing teaching practices.
In addition, respondents were asked to offer further detail outlining their concerns. These responses offer a more nuanced story.
Staffing issues related not just to present personnel levels, but to the impact of policies put in place during the pandemic on current and future colleagues were of concern. At several institutions, even when no one was furloughed or fired, positions were often frozen, so no new hires were possible and open positions remained open. Some noted that the COVID-era atmosphere has been terrible for morale, which is likely to have longer-range impacts as well. “We’re losing some of our dynamic younger people” as those close to retirement “have too much invested in the community to leave on the spur of the moment.” (95) For those who remain, respondents noted concerns of low morale due to “persistent cuts to salary, benefits and travel budgets” (159) and more generally a “weakened library culture” due to “Loss of face-to-face contact with other library employees and hallway-type interactions. Not getting to know new employees as well.” (176) (178)
For those facing cuts to collections, print and special collections were called out as at risk. (205)
Some noted the need to re-prioritize the collections budget “to fulfill demand for streaming video/audio resources. We have cut our spending on serials to focus more on streaming content. Monograph budgets are flat.” (225)
Even those institutions not facing direct or severe cuts themselves noted a range of ways in which they were also feeling the impact of COVID-related cutbacks in their organizations and throughout the community. In some cases, funding was not cut, but “frozen,” stalling long-planned capital projects or key hires. As one noted, “I have the money but am not allowed to spend it. I have had plans for moving the library forward in the area of digital scholarship and open access through new hires (positions are frozen) and a library renovation to create a digital scholarship center.” (65)
Where libraries are part of consortia, the impacts are felt for all. “If our consortium members’ budgets decrease, it has an impact on how much new material (archival data-bases, for instance) we can purchase. In other words, there is more power in working with a group than having to purchase direct, alone—so even if our budget isn’t impacted directly, our pricing will reflect an increase if we have to buy on our own, and thus our budget will be squeezed more than anticipated/expected in prior years.” (39)
One librarian noted the difficult position the library can be placed in, when seen as the key provider of content, without having the ability to deliver. The respondent noted a “loss of campus support because we’re unable to provide the resources expected in the online environment. The library/librarians are being held accountable for situations created by faculty authors & publishers with restrictive copyright licensing. This [is] significantly true for eBook availability.” (91)
Beyond library collections, many respondents underlined the significance of the services and physical spaces of the library, noting that while being able to offer services virtually is a sign of the strength of the institution (“the Libraires is being seen as the answer to equitable access to technology” (60), the de-emphasizing of the physical space could pose a long-term risk.
In a sense, the need to rapidly convert the library into a mostly virtual, contact-free space—and libraries’ success in doing this so quickly and effectively—may now somewhat undermine future perceptions of the value of those spaces.
“What will happen to library spaces now that we have proven that we can do 80-90%of our jobs remotely and that students and faculty have gotten used to teaching and learning online,” asked one. (129)
“We are open but with adjustments, including limiting hours and building capacity as well as prioritizing online resources and services. This is serving our students’ needs from an information perspective, but I worry about the social and communal perspective. Our library, like many others, was a space for collaboration and explo-ration. We host art exhibits, poetry readings, scholarly debates, and other events. All of that has changed to one degree or another. My worry is how students are coping with this loss and how we restore the image of the library as a place for ingenuity and collaboration once we have a few years of changed atmosphere.” (150)
“The library as space is pretty important on our campus. If our space use decreases over the long term, I worry about what that means for the library generally.” (247)