By Sarah Asselta

As the world’s information becomes digitalized, libraries are struggling to make purchasing decisions between new and old mediums. Stony Brook’s Melville Library has been operating on a shrinking print book allowance, as the shuffling of money through a stagnant budget has given priority to subscription-based electronic resources.

It is partly due to Stony Brook’s emphasis on the sciences, which depends heavily on pricey, searchable journals rather than monographs, or scholarly print texts. “Our journal collection is heavily digital already,” says Nathan Baum, Assistant Director of Electronic Resources. “There is this conception that these things are free, because it’s on the web and the web is free,” he says. “But we pay a lot of money for these resources.”


Electronic databases, such as ScienceDirect, JSTOR and LexisNexis, tend to lock in purchases with a three-to-five year contract, eliminating the ability to negotiate subscriptions with respect to budget variances from year to year. In addition, a relatively unchanged library budget in the past decade actually depletes the spending allowance due to inflation. Inflation reduces the purchasing power of print books according to the consumer price index, typically two-to-four percent annually. And the inflation rate for journals is actually much higher, 10% each year.

The Library’s material budget for the 2007-2008 school year was $6,988,988. Five years prior, during the 2001-2002 year, it was working with $6,776,222, and five years before that, the working budget was $5,358,522.

As the library becomes increasingly locked into set electronic subscription costs, coupled with inflation rates, the remaining allowance reserved for purchasing print resources has been shrinking every year. Some librarians say that this creates gaps in the print collection, as some newer editions cannot afford to be purchased.“Students assume that an accredited research institution is supplying them with an adequate collection of print books,” says Richard Feinberg, Head Preservation Librarian. “A sufficient collection would allow a student to go to the stacks, browse the shelves, and stumble across material they never expected to, enriching their research.”

The tight budget is shaping the library’s format collection. Publishers typically sell resources in packages; an electronic edition, a print edition, and other possible accessories such as CD’s and DVD’s. Electronic editions get priority, says the library administration.  It becomes easier to handle, archive, search and print. When asked whether this is better for the library system, Chris Filstrup, Dean of the Libraries, says that this is the future.  “Our job is to give people information whatever the format is, whether it’s using LexisNexis or digging through the Stacks.”

Balancing between print and electronic resources has been a complicated issue for years, says Aimee DeChambeau, e-Resources Librarian. But as e-journals, e-books and online databases rapidly expand, book shelves could get lonely. “It’s not a temporary shift,” she says, “It’s here to stay.”

Subject specialists advise the library administration in purchases, making the acquired list a collaborative effort between faculty, academics, librarians and a Library Senate Committee that ensures the money is used efficiently. Close collaboration with other state schools allow for no more than two SUNY schools to purchase the same monograph. Interlibrary loans enable the sharing within the system, cutting back unnecessary spending.  “When you don’t have much money, you are very particular,” says Filstrup.

With such a small print book budget, priority of purchases is going only to support the courses and the curriculum. If a professor will be teaching the material, the library acquires it. Susan Lieberthal, the Business and Interlibrary Loan librarian, says the people that are suffering the most due to the stagnant monograph collection are the researchers in the Humanities, who rely heavily on dated, often obscure material. “If you’re studying in the history department, and your thesis is on ‘women’s novels in 18th century America,’ you’re going to need a lot of books,” says Lieberthal.

More books!
More books!

Libraries are strange animals. “The provost views us as black holes, because we require so much money but don’t generate any revenue,” says Lieberthal. However, an extensive research library tends to mirror the credentials of an academic institute.

This is where a library’s priorities may be shifting. In the past, a library’s collection value was often measured by hefty card catalogs. Nowadays, a quality resource collection may be redefining itself in light of diverging formats, as long as funds grow to compensate for the increasing costs and conveniences of all things digital.

The next step for the library is the accumulation of WorldCat, a non-profit, member-regulated network of 50 million library records and growing. It allows students to locate books nationwide, send out an interlibrary request, and receive it within two-to-four days. “I’m not saying it’s the same thing as going to the stacks and browsing, I understand that,” says Filstrup, “These days of huge print collections—browsing and serendipity—they’re gone.”

As for the budget dilemma, library administrators remain somewhere between optimistic and realistic. “There are a lot of things that I wish we could buy, but you have to live within the budget situation.” The library received a modest victory this year, receiving a $100,000 increase in “tech fees,” growing the printed book budget from $300,000 from last year to $400,000 this year.

“The budget will always be an issue,” says Filstrup. “I think we’re managing our money well.”

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