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From the covid impact survey report

Strategies for Dealing with Budget Cuts


4 mins read

As a result of COVID-related budget pressure, librarians, especially those in the US, where budgets were most negatively affected, had to make many adjustments with very little time and a great deal of uncertainty. As one senior administrator noted, “information from the university came quickly, and was oftentimes rapidly changing.” A Director of Academic Library Services at a public university emphasized the challenges inherent in rapid decision-making: “a real frustration for us was a really short turnaround from the time that funds (were) available to the deadline to submitting a request to get them… We could have been more strategic, but deadlines [and] administration made it hard to assess the options, get the pricing [and] negotiate the prices.”

“We could have been more strategic, but deadlines [and] administration made it hard to assess the options, get the pricing [and] negotiate the prices.”

Survey participants were asked, “as a result of COVID-related budget pressure, how likely” they were to undertake certain actions. Many reported that they had already begun pursuing certain strategies. Over 70% of respondents noted that they had already chosen to “seek discounts from publishers” at the time of the survey and an additional 26% said they were likely to do so in the future as a result of COVID-related budget pressures. Over a quarter (27%) had already unbundled a Big Deal, with an additional 44% likely to do so in the future. A similar number of institutions reported having made, or being likely to make, significant cuts to large journal packages. Unfortunately, nearly a fifth of institutions (19%) had already cut staff positions as a result of the pandemic, and another 19% were at least “somewhat likely” to do so in the future (Figure 3).

Unsurprisingly, libraries that experienced budget cuts of 10% or more were more likely to have already implemented one of the strategies described above than those which reported lesser cuts. Beyond those, a similar proportion of institutions, regardless of the size of their budget cut, indicated they were likely to employ additional strategies in the future. For example, those with both large and small cuts were equally likely to consider unbundling a big deal or making significant cuts to a large journal package.

Survey respondents were asked how their institution’s strategies had changed as a result of COVID-related issues. [Q15] In Canada, where budgets were generally less affected, respondents largely increased attention and resources to almost all areas. This was not the case among US institutions, where library respondents demonstrated stronger support for some activities than for others. While 78% of US respondents reported increased attention or resources for licensed digital materials and 61% increased support for internal digitization efforts, only 24% noted increased support for investments in open infrastructure projects and 17% noted increased support for library publishing (Table 1).

Understanding which actions have had the greatest impact may be easier to do with some distance, but respondents shared their thoughts about the “one action your library has taken that has had the greatest impact.” [Q16] The responses suggested just how quickly libraries have had to pivot to provision of content for faculty and students, and how creatively they have had to consider working within the restricted budgets they have.

Respondents cited many different ways to access licensed digital content as being most impactful, whether provisioning more material in digital formats, paying less for content they already have access to, or finding new ways to access materials, through:

  • Supporting the use and creation of OER

  • Increased licensing of digital materials, including for streaming video

  • Internal digitization efforts “because they directly impact faculty’s ability to teach successfully”

  • Seeking perpetual access and/or unlimited usage

  • Renegotiating to obtain either publisher discounts/lower increases

  • Expanding use of controlled digital lending, including use of HathiTrust’s emergency temporary access service

  • Increasing contributions to campus Open Access publishing funds

While these actions were cited as impactful, some respondents pointed out that they were not necessarily “new.” As one Library Director at a public doctoral-granting institution noted, “Actually, our strategy has not changed due to COVID. We are using this situation as a way to advocate for more open information and the move to more OER. We have been pushing on these initiatives for years so we are taking advantage of people’s openness to digital and online courses… to adapt to a new online environment.”

In some cases, the enthusiasm for creating and promoting the use of Open Educational Resources was somewhat tempered by the constraints of the pandemic. A senior administrator at a private masters-degree granting institution highlighted the challenge of implementing open efforts in a year with a long list of other challenges at hand: “[Our] publishing output has decreased this year as our faculty struggle to pivot to online teaching, therefore, advocating for open access took a back seat. Our Special Collections librarian has upped her digitization efforts to support online teaching.”

About the authors

Portrait of Claudio Aspesi

Claudio Aspesi

A respected market analyst with over a decade of experience covering the academic publishing market, and leadership roles at Sanford C. Bernstein, and McKinsey.

Scholarly Publishing and Academic Resources Coalition

SPARC is a coalition of academic and research libraries that work to enable the open sharing of research outputs and educational materials in order to democratize access to knowledge, accelerate discovery, and increase the return on our investment in research and education.