Brought to Book

In the crisis facing Australian universities the focus has inevitably been on human resource issues such as increased costs to students, involuntary or voluntary redundancies and the closing of departments.

An intellectual time bomb, however, is ticking away beneath the surface which affects not simply the university research community but also the nation's access to a wide range of information. This is the crisis affecting the nation's university libraries. Increasingly we won't have the print resources for an informed citizenry to utilise. As the Internet develops and expands inexorably we will need to provide a cultural balance and depth to the global aims and domination of the Microsoft and Murdochian empires. The global "Roman" amphitheatre of Net TV is not far away.

The excellent three volume set Knowing Ourselves and Others. The Humanities in Australia into the 21st Century produced by the Australian Academy of Humanities and issued by the Australian Research Council has received less publicity nationwide than the temporary injuries received by AFL or Rugby League stars. Yet the essays, many of which highlighted the library crisis, argue the case for the humanities and social sciences playing a wide societal role beyond an academic one.

Sixty percent of jobs in the UK are now classified as "cerebral" and thirty percent manual. Most of the current dock crisis relates to physical exports of commodities but the transmission of intellectual commodities on the Net needs no dockside to pass through. The Net imbalance is profound for Australia as America dominates both the software and the content of the Net.

Lifelong access to information will be needed in the 21st century. Professor Don Aitkin, Vice Chancellor of the University of Canberra, expressed his dismay at the National Scholarly Communication Forum in Canberra on 4 May at the lack of understanding by either political party of the longterm impact on society by the huge reductions in university budgets and in particular libraries.

Despite the official comments of Government spokespersons the funds available to universities in real terms have declined dramatically. Commentators such as Professor John Niland, Vice Chancellor of UNSW, are indicating a dire funding situation with a consequent reduction of quality in Australian higher education in the next five years - the dumbing down of education.

In many disciplines the libraries of the universities are the major research collections in Australia. The State Libraries naturally have specific briefs but their major research collecting is literally a thing of the past in a generalist sense, eg, as practised by the State Library of Victoria in the second half of the nineteenth century. The National Library of Australia has controversially reduced its research library collecting dramatically by 60% in recent years. It no longer collects in many areas of the sciences, social sciences and humanities and only spends $2.6 million on overseas acquisitions. Many public libraries do not aim to hold major resource collections.

In the information environment there are some specific factors which have exacerbated the resource funding environment. Throughout the world academics have given away their intellectual output and libraries at increasing cost have bought it back from "giga" science publishing giants such as Reed Elsevier. Reed Elsevier's profits average annually over 500 million pounds with serial publication price rises of about 10-15% per annum. Electronic versions of serials often cost as much as if not more than print journals despite the fact that in the electronic environment, production, storage and distribution costs are lower. Electronic licence conditions are often more restrictive than the "fair" use of print copies. Electronic publishing globally is a mess.

So what can university libraries buy in such an environment? Less and less is the answer. The Department of Employment, Education and Training and Youth Affairs (DEETYA) until two years ago took cognisance in its supplementation index of a component for book and serial inflation - "the Monash Index". This has now been withdrawn and the need for a reconstituted Index is essential. Current supplementation of 0.5% per annum against 15% p.a. publisher inflation leads to an inevitable conclusion of a major recurrent decline in resources. Add a devaluation factor of 15% over the last year and the impact on libraries is horrendous. University efficiencies of the order of 35% to cover the decline in library budgets are impossible to achieve.

A decline in quality inexorably follows in information provision unless other solutions are found. Within the current budgets, redistribution is a short term possibility. Universities on average spend 5.1% on their libraries, while spending 14.8% on administration (source Monash University). An increase of 0.2% on 5.1% would return $15 million to the system and a total of 6% would give $64 million which could 'top slice' national solutions to the present crisis. In 1996 university libraries across Australia spent nearly $400 million of which nearly $140 million went on serials and subscriptions.

The Minister for Employment, Education and Training, Dr David Kemp, in his speech to the OECD Thematic Review Seminar on 21 April said:-

"There are several other areas in which the universities could learn about management efficiency from other sectors. The common-use bulk purchasing arrangements that local government bodies have with suppliers is just one example. While there is evidence of active collaboration among university libraries in the areas of inter-library loans, purchase of expensive research materials and consortium trial approaches to some electronic journal services, there is still plenty of scope for both national and international collaborative activity in several areas. I find it remarkable, for instance, that Australian universities, unlike their counterparts in other countries, have not managed to negotiate as a group with international publishing houses over rates for journal subscriptions and have not collaborated in the process of rationalising their subscriptions and library holdings. The Government is prepared to support a coopeative initiative in this regard on the condition that the participating universities agree to share collections and take steps to secure future access through their own resources".

Serial rationalisation lies with the academic community more often than not competitive rather than co-operative in finding alternate access methods (which cannot be funded on a one off basis!), and looking at issues in long term depth and analysis. The co-ordination of serials and other subscriptions by consortia within small geographical areas of the UK have yielded discounts, but only in the region of 5-7 percent which are insignificant in the context of the 35 percent reductions in real terms mentioned earlier.

The West Report on Higher Education was singularly quiet on libraries despite Roderick West and some of his Committee spending days on consultations with scholarly communication bodies and in debate. A brief statement in the Report that "Libraries face particular challenges in staying abreast of technological change and the continuing increases in the volume of information" (p41) is hardly profound and seems to have been added onto the recommendations as an afterthought. To then say, as Kemp does, that loan funds could help underwrite major investments in library infrastructure ignores the recurrent nature of some of the issues. Library technology implementations produced major cost benefit returns in the 1980's which are difficult to replicate now. Improvements now lie in other areas of university activities, eg, the rationalisation of courses and co-operation between universities.

The funding scenario postulated by West cannot help libraries dramatically. Student fees cannot keep up with rampant inflation nor can the public in Australia roam the Internet as cheaply as their American counterparts. University philanthropy hardly exists in Australia partly because of a lack of historical wealth accumulation, cultural appreciation and of attractive tax incentive schemes. The University of California, San Diego Library had a donation of $26 million US last year. The University of Washington Library US$20 million. The University of Chicago raised $7 million in one day for a Law Library extension several years ago. Where are the Bodley's, the Folgers and the Huntingtons of Australia?

In the electronic area, the US National Science Foundation has provided $A33.8 million for digital library projects and the British government has earmarked $A40 million for cooperative library projects. Similar Australian government funding has only totalled $A5 million granted as a result of the 1993 Canberra Scholarly Communication Forum. This money has now run out.

University libraries cancelled major campus duplication of resources in the 1980's. Now the reductions in 1997 and 1998 are leading to cancellations of unique titles. ANU and Adelaide are both cancelling $800,000 each of serials in 1998, while nearly $1 million of titles are to be cancelled at both Sydney and Melbourne Universities. These are amongst the historically big research collections in the country and provide back up to other libraries. Once these have gone the alternatives are overseas supply but at what cost? Cancellations will also follow in succeeding years in triennial budget predictions.

Richard Landon, the Rare Books Curator of the University of Toronto Library, has recently indicated that he is building an Australian and South Pacific Collection at Toronto not because he has academic clients of any size but because he believes it is important for the future of the University. No one can do such future collection building in Australia because of the monetary constraints. There is no university library in Australia to compare with Toronto University Library which has an acquisition budget greater than Sydney University Library's total library budget!

The 'dumbing down' of education is occurring as the number of monographs declines in Australia and student needs are met by "reading bricks". Millions of pages are photocopied around Australia and distributed to students for rote learning, without thought of the educational input. Young Australian scholars in the social sciences and humanities have diminishing resources to publish and disseminate their research, at least in a traditional sense. The few remaining Australian university presses either struggle to survive or are propped up by university subsidies (eg Western Australia and Melbourne).

One answer is to move to the "Electronic University Press" with the same processes of refereeing and editing but making the text available on line and on demand. Price analyses at ANU and University of Southern Cross show an average price of $20 for monograph on demand publishing. Other publishers worldwide like M.I.T. and Columbia University Press have mounted some of their books free of charge on the Net which has resulted in increased sales up for hardback copies! Other publishers sell chapter or individual contributors to symposia.

What is needed is collaborative action and a national vision which so far has not emerged from DEETYA nor the Australian Vice Chancellors Committee (AVCC). At DEETYA the budget reductions have removed nearly all the policy "think tank" staff. A revamped Australian Research Council (ARC) under the new leadership of Professor Vicki Sara may offer a better strategic platform to consider some of the following:-

  • a co-ordinated approach by all the nationally relevant bodies, eg, Academies, AVC and others to publish only in learned society or academic publications, to co-operate with their international colleagues and to retain the intellectual copyright of their work particularly in an electronic context. A not for profit, cost recovery international academic cartel for publishing;
  • to lobby Government of the long term issues which cannot simply be addressed by "glib" one liners in official pronouncements;
  • to establish designated "para national" libraries funded in part to supply the rest of the nation, eg, in Classics, European languages, Asian studies etc. Already the ANU and NLA both individually buy more Asian material than the rest of the universities but the former is not funded for a national distributive role. The ANU's vision of a National Asian Information Centre bringing together the two collections of the ANU and NLA, to provide a print and electronic service to the nation and the Asian region, has had a chequered bureaucratic history but is still alive in concept and in funding bids.
  • Centres would receive a funding formula as in the UK to allow partial recompense, eg, in collection consolidation, electronic delivery and in inter library loan provision. While articles can be obtained relatively easily, if often not cheaply, to ship a book around the world is prohibitively expensive. Such rationalisation could also see the movement of stock to the para national centres. Most of the older universities have collections built up for which teaching and research is no longer active.
  • The establishment of a national centre for little used research material. Many physical research collections are going begging as academics retire, but university libraries can no longer afford to take in collections which no longer fit their collecting sphere. There are several major European collections being offered at present but no immediate takers. The National Libary has firmly rejected the notion that it is a collection of "last resort" despite the fact that much of its research collections are relatively little used. The establishment of a low cost major warehouse where collections can be located cheaply could be based on the model of the Chicago based US Centre for Research Libraries. Here little used material is housed until its subscriber members require it. The Victorian universities CAVAL store at the La Trobe campus could provide a model if a store by the banks of the Molonglo (NLA?) is not possible.
  • Improved uses of the Internet resources based on improved subject gateways and academic peer reviewed publications. The Internet allows much greater access to increasingly relevant sites ranging from Jane Austen to virtual classrooms in medicine.

What is needed in the current situation are new alliances where the universities co-operate and not compete in library resource issues while recognising the costs on the providers, where administrators realise there are no cheap solutions to provide a magical electronic fix (but allows more and better access) and when academics and administrators realise that all the players need to come together to combat the rapacious multinational publishers in science, technology, medicine and law.

The academic community with its international partners must revert to the practice of the first scientific journals in the mid-seventeenth century with academic society publishing, accreditation and refereeing. Let us return to publishing models set in Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society and the Journal des Scavants in the 1660's and ensure we become a "savvy" community as we enter the Knowledge Century.

Updated:  20 March 2013/ Responsible Officer:  University Librarian/ Page Contact:  Library Systems & Web Coordinator