Academic librarians are stewards of resources invested for the collective campus good. Responsible stewardship includes serving the institution’s mission, meeting the needs of researchers and learners, and anticipating what needs will emerge next.

For more than a decade, I’ve been exploring the power of futures thinking for driving library strategic planning and decision making.1 Futures thinking is a framework for considering multiple scenarios for what the future might hold and evaluating those scenarios for likelihood and potential consequences. By considering which futures are possible, librarians can then develop strategies and policies that move toward desirable futures while also, hopefully, avoiding undesirable ones. Futures thinking also offers the opportunity for other library stakeholders—faculty, students, and administrators—to see their roles in ensuring the health of their libraries.

So, what of the current state of academic libraries? Put bluntly, times are hard.

For decades, academic librarians have dealt with the realities of collections budgets that have not grown to match the expanding volume of journals, books, media, databases, and other resources that faculty and students need for research and learning. Many budgets have not even kept pace with inflation.

Pandemic disruptions only intensified the financial pressures that academic libraries already faced. An Ithaka S+R survey of US academic library deans and directors found that by September 2020, 75% of those libraries that did have a budget for 2020–21 had experienced a budget cut compared with what would have otherwise been expected before the pandemic.2 A notable proportion took cuts greater than 10%. Even more challenging, 20% of academic libraries did not yet have a budget for the 2020–21 fiscal year by September, and many of those libraries had been considering substantial cuts.

The survey also documented that the cuts impacted all aspects of library budgets. Specifically, “62 percent made cuts to collections, 59 percent allocated cuts to staffing, and 53 percent cut funds from operations.” The collections budget cuts further exacerbate the challenges libraries face as scholarly output continues to grow while library budgets shrink.

Lisa Janicke Hinchliffe, the author of this commentary, uses futures thinking as a strategy for making decisions and plans for institutional libraries as their budgets continue to tighten. She is a professor and coordinator for research and teaching professional development at the University of Illinois at Urbana–Champaign library.

Lisa Janicke Hinchliffe, the author of this commentary, uses futures thinking as a strategy for making decisions and plans for institutional libraries as their budgets continue to tighten. She is a professor and coordinator for research and teaching professional development at the University of Illinois at Urbana–Champaign library.

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One of my favorite futures thinking exercises is the Futures Wheel, which is a visual method for exploring implications of a given change by brainstorming consequences of the change and then consequences of those consequences, consequences of those consequences, and so on. The goal is to see the full impact of a particular change from a variety of perspectives and to unearth potential unintended consequences, particularly those that might be negative, so that they can be managed or mitigated.

Regardless of whether they have done the Futures Wheel activity specifically, academic librarians are well versed in assessing and managing the implications of contemporary budget cuts and historically declining buying power.

As a result of library collections budget cuts, researchers might spend more time seeking out access to articles and books that they need—for example, through interlibrary loan—which would take time away from other work and increase the time needed to complete a project. Students might need to pay for course materials that are no longer available through the library, which would add to the cost of their college education. And libraries might cancel scholarly society journal subscriptions, which would diminish support for scholarships, travel grants, and other programs funded by publishing revenues.

Given those potential consequences—and recognizing that a significant reversal of budgetary trends is as implausible as it would be desirable—academic librarians have been pursuing both short-term and long-term methods for maximizing the impact of the budgets that they do have while also seeking to alter the financial dynamics of the scholarly communications system as a whole.

Strategies for making the most of collections budgets have focused on negotiating lower prices, canceling lesser-used subscriptions, and providing delivery-on-demand services, particularly for journal articles. Research libraries have been canceling “big deal” packages with the largest publishers and replacing them with à la carte packages that reflect specific campus needs.3 In some cases, they have just been canceling subscription packages altogether. Unsub, an online subscription analysis tool, has been notably useful in those efforts.4 Libraries were assisted during the pandemic by the publishers that held prices steady rather than increasing fees or even offered pricing relief. Many of those programs, however, were temporary and have ceased. In sum, libraries are spending smarter and buying less.

Negotiating for discounts and similar efforts are unlikely to fully address declining purchasing power or the reality of expanding scholarly output. Librarians have therefore also been attempting market interventions with the aim of shifting scholarly publishing business models. Transformative agreements, which seek to shift library spending from paying for subscriptions to paying for open-access publishing, are particularly noteworthy for the increased value received by institutions for their library spending.5 But they have yet to lower the overall costs to libraries as some have envisioned. The University of California’s multipayer model, in which its libraries give financial support to all authors while requesting that those with grant funding cover part of the cost of article publication, is a unique approach to addressing that issue, but it is still in its earliest years of implementation, so it is difficult to evaluate whether it can be scaled to other institutions.

Hidden in the discussion of those realignment strategies is a challenging reality: The strategies rely on robust backroom operations and the expansion of other library services. With cuts to staffing and operations as a result of the pandemic, libraries may not be able to mitigate as they once did the negative consequences of cuts to the collections budgets.

That is why I want to return now to the observation at the start of this commentary—that futures thinking offers the opportunity for faculty, students, and administrators to consider their roles relative to the future of their libraries. To be clear, I am not saying that everyone needs to understand the inner workings of library management. I am saying, however, that faculty, students, and administrators need to understand the impact of the library on their work—and also what a library makes possible collectively.

Academic libraries are inherently a lever for equity. They ensure that regardless of one’s background, personal financial resources, social network, or other circumstances, if one is a member of the campus community, one has equal access to information resources. It may be easy for individuals to fall into thinking that they don’t need the library and that they have personal options. But the question to consider is whether the campus community needs the library.

The current realities of academic library budgets reflect the challenges of the past decades. Good stewardship of declining resources is still a story of declining resources. Librarians need to ensure that they are creating value for their institutions and communicating their impact. But librarians alone cannot ensure that the vision of a library as a collective good is a campus reality. The message that investment in the library is investment in the community is delivered best by the researchers and learners that libraries serve.

1.
2.
J. K.
Frederick
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C.
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3.
Big Deal Cancellation Tracking
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SPARC
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L.J.
Hinchliffe
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What do libraries keep when they cancel the big deal?
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Scholarly Kitchen
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4.
L. J.
Hinchliffe
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Taking a big bite out of the big deal
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Scholarly Kitchen
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5.
L. J.
Hinchliffe
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Transformative agreements: A primer
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Scholarly Kitchen
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