Decline in book purchases hurts humanities

Miami’s library funding hasn’t been cut since 2010, but it also hasn’t increased. With inflation, this inhibits Miami’s ability to purchase books and, subsequently, can hurt professors and students — especially those in the humanities.

Aaron Shrimplin, Associate Dean of Miami Libraries, noted that Miami’s flat budget won’t hold up against skyrocketing prices.

“Just to pay that inflation, we always have to cut content,” said Shrimplin. “We’ve been living in that environment for many years and will continue to live in that environment unless we see our budget increased a bit.”

This “cut content” is, more often than not, books. Since 2011, Miami libraries have had around $4.7 million to purchase academic journals, periodicals and books. But Miami continues to edge the latter out of the budget in favor of pricey journals and periodicals, which are essential to those in S.T.E.M. disciplines.

But the humanities — English, history, art, etc. — rely on books.

“We aren’t alone in this,” said Shrimplin. “It’s actually part of the whole scholarly communication ecosystem, and it’s fairly complex on many levels. Not only does it involve libraries and publishers and vendors, but also scholars that produce the content.”

Before its budget was slashed by about $300,000 in 2010, the library purchased all books that met certain qualifications — if they were from certain university presses, if they met a certain cost and if they had a high probability of usage. Now, the library only purchases books specifically in demand. This approval plan’s budget was around $210,000 last year, but is projected to be zero in 2017.

Former History department chair Allan Winkler stressed the importance of books to any school’s humanities disciplines. He pointed out that the state typically prioritizes publications benefiting S.T.E.M. areas because they feel that those better prepare people for work after school, but Winkler argues that books are also crucial to research and serve as the “backbone” of a university.

“The library is like the laboratory for scientists. In the humanities, we use books perhaps more than journals and journal articles,” said Winkler. “It’s absolutely important for the work we do, and the notion of cutting back on this is unacceptable.”

A chart provided by Miami Libraries indicates a drop in book purchasing from 16,000 in 2011 to 13,000 in 2015. This year, that number will likely be sliced in half.

English professor and Humanities Center director Tim Melley agrees with Winkler and noted the connection between humanities research and books.

“My biggest concern is that humanities research is going to be decimated nationwide if this trend continues,” said Melley. “We’re talking about a trend that’s not just happening at Miami, but other places too.”

Books acquired by universities through OhioLINK, a statewide library consortium, fell dramatically from around 150,000 in the 2011-2012 school year to below 75,000 in 2013-2014. And while librarians’ projected book-buying budget at Miami is expected to be about $291,000 next year, over $3.4 million will be allocated for journals and databases.

Erin Vonnahme, a humanities librarian specializing in subjects like journalism, film, theater and women’s gender studies, emphasized the importance of library funding.

“It’s just important to keep aware of how vital the library space is to a thriving university, because we are inherently interdisciplinary,” said Vonnahme. “So, I buy for humanities-specific collections like literature, but I know that my work can support colleagues in different fields.”

One of the changes that Miami libraries will enact in its next fiscal year is bringing groups of librarians together on a regular basis to decide what should be included in the budget, in a way that benefits as many disciplines as possible.

“Everyone should just love libraries more,” said Vonnahme. “We are so inherently built upon learning, however that manifests . . . just advocate for libraries.”

MU Libraries’ staff is currently presenting their predicament to the school’s administration, imploring the need for an increased budget. Their fiscal year concludes on June 30, and restarts on July 1.

“We’ve done the storytelling, and we’ve had a pretty receptive audience,” said Shrimplin. “I think we’ve laid out the constraints and challenges, and some of the opportunities we’ve taken advantage of, but now we wait with bated breath.”