Rising Costs Are Challenge for Library

Purchasing Power on the Decline

by Chancellor Robert M. Berdahl

A recent front-page article in the San Francisco Chronicle suggested Berkeley's library was locked in a battle pitting computers and digital information against printed books and journals.

Yes, our library is facing a crisis. But the conflict is not whether digital information should replace traditional printed material. The crisis-one we share with university research libraries nationwide-is how to keep up with dramatically increasing costs and the explosion in the number of specialized journals, in whatever form they are published.

These pressures have greatly eroded library purchasing power at a time when the demand for information in our knowledge-based economy is greater than ever.

Consider costs alone. While the national inflation rate has hovered between 2 and 4 percent annually over the past 10 years, the inflation rate for scholarly journals-many of which are issued by a few private publishers-has been averaging between 13 and 16 percent a year, with science journals increasing in price by 20 percent or more each year. A typical example is the subscription cost of the Journal of Economic Behavior and Organization. In 1989 it cost $275. This year, the same subscription is $1,104.

At Berkeley, our library collections budget (not including the law library) is $8.4 million. (About 97 percent of this budget currently goes to purchase printed books and journals.) As a result of inflation, even when this budget suffers no cuts, we are losing close to $750,000 in purchasing power each year.

At the same time, the creation of new knowledge is soaring. There are currently an estimated 200,000 scholarly journals published, double the number that were available in the 1970s.

Why must we buy these? Certainly, some journals are more valuable than others and libraries must be highly selective in deciding which to purchase. In 1989, Berkeley reported 104,000 subscriptions. Now we are down to about 80,000, a drop of more than 20 percent in less than a decade. These journals provide the most current scholarship and research available worldwide. Not to have access to them is to diminish the opportunity for swift advancement of knowledge.

At Berkeley, the challenge of providing current information is profound. Not only do we support more than 100 graduate programs; the nature of undergraduate education at Berkeley is shifting to a greater emphasis on original research.

Further, our mandate is to serve students and faculty in the California State University System, in the California Community Colleges, teachers in our K-12 schools and the general public.

In fact, California industry is a major beneficiary of our collections. The largest outside users mirror the growth engines of the California economy-agriculture, biosciences, environmental science, computer science and engineering, and health.

Berkeley faculty understand how essential the library is to the vitality and distinction of the university. Over the past three years, the campus has committed funding to ease the shortfall of the collections budget. But there is no way an individual campus on its own can hope to keep up with such pressures over time.

Berkeley and university libraries nationwide are attempting to manage this crisis through cooperation and innovation.

The campus's Blue Ribbon Committee on the Library is addressing the problems of collections and access as well as whether the campus should pursue new models of scholarly communication and publishing.

The UC system collectively has the goal of acquiring at least one copy of every important journal and making it available within 24 hours at any of the nine campuses that request it. Berkeley and Stanford also have a cooperative sharing agreement that benefits scholars at both universities.

UC President Richard Atkinson has appointed a task force to define systemwide solutions to the problems of escalating costs of scholarly publications. In response to the task force report, Atkinson has moved to establish a single digital library supporting science, technology, medicine and business, leaving the responsibility for the print collection in all fields to the campuses.

At the same time, a committee of the Association of American Universities is looking into such issues as the extent to which electronic scholarly publishing should be carried out within the academic sector rather than the commercial sector.

Still, as we work to manage this crisis and seek solutions for the future, it will be very difficult to keep pace with such spiraling costs. We are going to have to make hard choices. Whether we buy printed materials or digital versions may turn out to be the easy part.


Copyright 1998, The Regents of the University of California.
Produced and maintained by the Office of Public Affairs at UC Berkeley.
Comments? E-mail berkeleyan@pa.urel.berkeley.edu.