Inflation in periodicals, flat budget lead to erosion of purchasing power

By James Steinbauer, Editor-in-Chief

Inflated prices and a stagnant budget have led to a significant cut in funding that is diminishing the book-buying power of Miami University’s libraries.

While the budget for Miami’s libraries has remained flat since 2010, at around $4.7 million, the cost of periodicals and academic journals has increased by about 6 percent per year over that same period.

In response, the libraries have completely cut what they spend under their “approval plan,” which allowed select publishers and university presses to automatically send books that met specified research or curriculum needs. Miami Libraries spent nearly $488,000 on such purchases in 2010 and $210,000 last school year.

This year, the “approval plan” budget is zero.

The decision to buy books has now been shifted solely to what are called the librarians’ discretionary budgets. However, those discretionary budgets have been cut by 40 to 50 percent since 2010, further diminishing each librarian’s ability to meet the requests of faculty and students. The libraries have budgeted close to $292,000 for such purchases this year, down from $564,000 in 2010.

“When you combine a flat budget with journal costs that are hyperinflated, you’ve got a pretty toxic cocktail,” said Aaron Shrimplin, associate dean of Miami University Libraries. “That really means erosion of purchasing power. So, the only way to survive in this kind of environment is to cut some of your resources.”

In a presentation to the Board of Trustees Academic and Student Affairs committee last Thursday, Dean of Libraries Jerome Conley outlined the libraries’ recent advances, including a new textbook initiative and the purchase of a Nature package that will add 80 scientific journals to the libraries’ collection.

But his presentation also acknowledged that the libraries’ book-buying budget will remain under pressure because of the rising costs of academic journals, periodicals and other materials considered “serial.”

“For years, we as a library profession have said that we would buy certain books just in case someone wants to check them out,” Conley said. “This is now causing us to move from that ‘just in case’ model to a ‘just in time’ model.”

The problem is not exclusive to Miami. The price of serials has skyrocketed — up by more than 105 percent since 2001. In what’s become known as the “Serials Crisis,” librarians throughout the United States are struggling to figure out how to reconcile their flat budgets with the rising costs.

“Those of us who’ve been ordering resources for the libraries for a long time have seen how the prices have gone up,” said Ken Grabach, Miami’s geography, geology, mathematics and maps librarian. “It’s like hiking an upper slope of the Himalayas. If one wanted to get aggravated with anybody about this, it’s really the publishers.”

However, there are some faculty members at Miami who believe cutting the book-buying budget to cover the costs of periodicals and journals will disproportionately hurt fields outside of the sciences.

“The libraries administration has noted that it was ‘robbing Peter to pay Paul,’” Director of the Humanities Center Timothy Melley told The Miami Student. “Well, unfortunately, the humanities are Peter in this scenario. The libraries are increasingly robbing the book purchasing budget to pay for scholarly journals.”

Keith Tuma, a professor of English and editor of the Miami University Press, said he takes the libraries’ cut to the book-buying budget as a snub to the humanities faculty.

“There is no research in the humanities without an up-to-date library,” Tuma said. “It’s a direct insult to the idea that one of the chief roles of a university is the production and circulation of knowledge.”

The decision to cut funding to Miami’s libraries came at the peak of the economic recession near the beginning of the 2007-08 school year. The libraries’ budget decreased from a high of almost $5.2 million to its current amount in 2010 and has remained flat ever since.

David Creamer, the vice president of finance for Miami, said the discussion of whether or not to make an additional funding allocation to the libraries, is currently on the table.

“I think the provost and the deans will probably make some improvement in the budget for the library,” Creamer said. “But if we don’t find ways to avoid such large cost increases in the future, we’ll find ourselves back in the same situation probably not very far down the road.”

This story was produced in cooperation with patch.com, a community-focused website with content produced by Miami journalism students. 

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