Higher Education Strategy Associates

Tag Archives: Libraries

November 01

Scientific Journal Prices & Library Purchasing Power

Last week’s pieces on libraries generated a fair bit of comment (I get the impression librarians don’t get attention that often).  So I thought I would come back for another pass on the subject.

First a couple of clarifications.  First, apparently CARL’s data for UNB includes expenditures at both campuses while the student data relates only to the Fredericton campus.  So all those per-student expenditure figures for UNB?  They need to be cut by about 20%.  Also, I think I need to underline that institutional spending varies so much because some libraries simply have much larger responsibilities than others.  It’s not simply a matter of having greater student support buried in the Library, or doing more or less on open access repositories and the like.  Some universities embed their archives in the Library, some take care of copyright issues, etc etc.  So don’t treat all those comparisons from last Wednesday as full apples-to-apples; treat them as a starting point for discussions about cost, efficiency, etc.

But one discussion that kept cropping in the various replies to my piece last week had to do with journal prices.  Everyone was happy to find that real expenditures on materials had climbed, but noted that this was nothing compared to the increase in journal costs, and might it be possible to show something a little more on that score?

As always on this blog: ask and ye shall receive.

The first challenge in keeping track of journal prices is that the manner of purchasing journals has changed considerably in the last 20 years.  Universities used to buy individual journals; now they buy publisher-packaged bundles of journals.  In theory, that brings average journal prices down (though not in a manner which is easy to track), but it keeps aggregate library expenditures high and rising.  The second problem is that even to the extent one can track journal prices, one needs a stable basket of journals to use as an index and as far as I can tell there isn’t one.  Library Journal has been doing a price survey for years, but it keeps widening the base of journals included in the index, so it’s not a perfect comparison over a long period of time.  Still, it’s the best I could find and I took the data from its most detailed cost comparisons (the ones broken down by Library of Congress subject) since the year 2000. The result is shown below in Figure 1.

Figure 1: Average Journal Prices across all Library of Congress Fields of Study 2000-2016, (in 2016 USD)


Between 2000 and 2016, average journal prices in $USD rose by 107% after (US) inflation, or at roughly 5% per year.  But this growth was not distributed equally across all fields of study.  In recreation, the average increase was 417% (albeit from a pretty low base); in Anthropology it was a mere 64%. So an individual university’s lived inflation rate might vary quite a bit depending on the distribution of journal holdings across fields of study.  The base level of expenditures will be quite different as well: as figure 2 shows, there are some quite significant differences in average journal prices by academic field.

 Figure 2: Average Journal Prices for Top Ten Fields of Study by Journal Numbers 2016, (in USD)


Anyways, back to the issue of purchasing power.  Obviously, journal costs are rising.  But so too are universities serials budgets.  Across all 31 Canadian Association of Research Libraries (CARL) members, which include 29 universities plus the Library and Archives Canada and the National Science Library, serials budgets rose 22% after inflation over the period 2004-5 to 2014-5.  That’s more than the overall 9% increase in the materials budget, which implies that there has been a shift in purchasing from single titles to serials.

But since very few journals are published in Canada, overwhelmingly the most important number is not the serials budget in Canadian dollars, but the serials budget in American dollars.  And here we lucked out, thanks to the resources-driven rise in the value of the dollar.  In inflation-adjusted US terms, CARL members’ budgets increased collectively by 36% – which is exactly the same amount by which average journal prices increased over the same period.  Meaning that, broadly speaking, Canadian universities were more or less able to keep pace over that period.

 Figure 3: Changes in Journal Prices vs. Canadian Research Libraries’ Serials Budgets, 2004/5 to 2014/5, indexed to 2004/5


The problem of course is that since 2014, the dollar has sunk quite a bit – from 88 cents to 72 cents, or about 18%.   And though we have no CARL statistics past 2014-15, I think it’s fair to say that serials budgets have not risen concomitantly.  And so even without pressures like a 24% cut in provincial spending (as MUN has experienced), all institutions are likely to see some significant cuts in the few months if they have not already.

In short, a 5% per year real increase in journal fees can be dealt with by slimming monograph purchases if currency movements are in your favour.  But if currency values are heading in the wrong direction, there’s almost nothing that can forestall serials cuts.

October 27

Fun With Library Statistics (Part 2)

Is there any part of the university that has been more transformed over the past decade than libraries?  One of the fascinating things about looking through old Canadian Association of Research Libraries (CARL) statistical reports is how many things weren’t counted, say ten years ago.  Expenditures on databases?  Not counted.  Logins to databases?  Searches or article requests?  Nope, nope.  Not that those things didn’t exist back then – they just weren’t central enough to university missions to be thought worth counting.

One thing which was counted back then (and is still counted today) is loans.  And if you want to get a sense of how libraries have changed in the past decade or so, check out this graph of changes in initial loans between 2004-05 and 2014-15, by institution.

Figure 1: Change in Numbers of Initial Loans, Canadian Research University Libraries, 2004-5 to 2014-5


Nationally, initial loans are down 58% across 27 CARL universities over the past decade (Brock and Ryerson are not shown because they did not provide statistics in 2004-05), from 11 million per year to just 5 million per year.  Simon Fraser has experienced the lowest drop – just 24%.  At Concordia, the fall was 81%.  And these figures do not account for growth in student numbers: add those in and figures would drop another 20% or so.

In other words, libraries are decreasingly about books but increasingly about electronic resources.  And this has had impacts on employment.  Across all 27 institutions, FTE employment is down 11%, with the biggest falls at some of the most research intensive universities: Alberta down 35%, McGill down 33%, Queen’s down 26%.  Toronto bucked that trend with a fall of just 5%, and four institutions (Calgary, Carleton, SFU and Ottawa) actually saw increases in employment.  But overall we are seeing a decline in numbers.

But, as with professorial staff (with whom they are often grouped in the same collective agreements), librarians have seen a considerable upward drift in pay.  So while FTE employment is down, nationally, aggregate staff compensation is still up 3% in inflation-adjusted dollars (for comparison, aggregate professorial salaries are up about 39% over the same period).  But here again the variation at the institutional level is absolutely enormous, from +50% at Regina, to -22% at McGill.

Figure 2: Change in Real Expenditures on Library Staffing, Canadian Research University Libraries, 2004-5 to 2014-5


So much for staffing: what about acquisitions (or, more broadly, materials)?  Good news here, these grew by 9% between 2004-05 and 2014-15, though again, there’s really not that many institutions which are close to the national mean.  Of particular interest here are the identities of the two institutions who saw the biggest increase in spending: namely, Memorial and Ottawa.  Probably not coincidentally, these are the two institutions currently engaged in the biggest rows about cutting back on periodicals (see here and here).

Figure 3: Change in Real Expenditures on Library Materials, Canadian Research University Libraries, 2004-5 to 2014-5


These last two graphs raise the question: do institutions have consistent strategies with respect to allocating their budgets between staffing and acquisitions?  Are both budgets being raised (or lowered) in tandem or are schools cutting in one so as to invest more in the other?

Figure 4: Change in Staffing Budgets v. Change in Materials Budget (in real dollars), Canadian University Research Libraries 2004-05 to 2014-15


Here’s the way to understand figure 4.  In the upper left quadrant, you have institutions which are increasing their staffing budgets, but decreasing their materials budget (at the very top left is Regina, which is +50% and -15%).  In the top right quadrant you see institutions which have increased both staffing and materials (the most notable example here is Ottawa, at +56% and +24%).  Moving on clockwise to the bottom right, you see institutions which have cut staffing budgets and increased their materials budgets, and here you have both McGill and Alberta cutting the former by about 20% and increasing the latter by 12%.  And finally, in the lower left quadrant, you have three institutions (Queen’s, Montreal and Windsor) which have seen real decreases in both staffing and materials.

Nationally, there seems to be very little correlation – positive or negative – between changes in one kind of spending and change in the other.  To the extent that library expenditures are strategic, institutions seem to be pursuing a wide variety of strategies in this area.  It would be interesting to correlate this data with user satisfaction surveys to see if any of them are more likelier than others to produce satisfactory outcomes.

October 26

Fun With Library Statistics (Part 1)

The Canadian Association of Research Libraries (CARL) recently issued its annual statistical report.  I thought I’d take the opportunity over the next couple of days to take a look at a few interesting patterns in library practices and expenditures.  They shed some interesting light on the pressures Canadian academic libraries face right now.

Some methodology here: CARL has 29 university members, from the very large U of T (almost 74,000 FTE students) to UNB (under 8,000 FTE students).  As a result, expressing figures in terms of “average per institution) (as CARL does) is kind of weird.  So I have chosen to display all institutional values on a “per student” basis.  This has some problems of its own (libraries don’t just service students, not all students use libraries with same intensity, etc.) but they are less severe than doing it on a per-institution basis.

Let’s start with Library expenditures. A little over half (55%) of library expenditures go towards salaries and benefits.  On average, across all institutions, CARL universities spend $432/student per year on this, but the range is enormous.  At the top end Memorial and Calgary were spending over $700/student, but at Sherbrooke, Brock and Ryerson the amount was under $300 per student.

Figure 1: Per Student Expenditures on Salary & Benefits, Canadian Research University Libraries, 2014-15


Most of the rest of the library budget goes on “materials”, which is predominantly the acquisition of titles and periodicals.  Across CARL institutions, the average expenditure on this item is $365/student per year, but again there is huge variation around the mean. McGill and Memorial both spend over $600/student; Saskatchewan spends over $700/student.  At the other end, Ryerson, UQAM and Brock are all under $200 per student.

Figure 2: Per Student Expenditures on Library Materials, Canadian Research University Libraries, 2014-15


As you can see, some universities end up towards the top of both lists (mainly those in provinces with a lot of natural resource revenues), and some end up towards the bottom (mainly those universities which aren’t actually all that research-intensive).  But the interesting thing to me is the relationship between those two graphs: what’s the ratio of spending on staff to spending on materials?  Well, nationally, CARL members spend just under 85 cents on materials for every $ spent on salaries.  Again, there’s quite a bit of variation.

Figure 3: Ratio of Expenditures on Library Materials to Library Staffing Costs, Canadian Research University Libraries, 2014-15



At one end, you have McGill, which spends $1.38 in materials for every dollar they spend on staffing, which suggests either that they are a lean machine or that their collection specializes in some ludicrously expensive journals (it’s probably not a coincidence that all the institutions at the left hand side of the graph have medical schools).  At the other end, curiously, you have the two francophone Quebec universities where the spending ratio is extremely low: 50 cents on materials for every dollar in staffing at Université de Montréal and 48 cents at UQAM.

Might these differences in some ways be related to utilization rates?  One crude way of looking at usage is to look at turnstile counts, which are tracked at 23 of the CARL institutions.  Measured on a per-student basis, one again sees massive differences, the average across the country is 70 turns per student per year, but it ranges at the top end with Saskatchewan recording 100 turns per student per year to Laval, which only gets 24.  One might expect that universities with higher turnstile counts might need a slightly higher staffing count to deal with more users.  But in fact the relationship between the two is essentially non-existent.

Figure 4: Turnstile Counts vs. Materials:Staff Ratio, Canadian Research University Libraries, 2014-15


That leaves us with a bit of a puzzle as far as why we see such different cost patterns at different universities.  There are presumably some relevant structural and historical reasons why you get this kind of spread: different universities need of different library services, costs may be elevated because of specialized holdings; for instance, MUN manages a Centre for the Study of Newfoundland which is undoubtedly costly and would likely elevate staff costs considerably).  So, one shouldn’t leap to conclusions about the efficiency of any particular library based on this kind of comparison; but at the same time this kind of data does allow us to ask much better questions about why each university’s library cost structure looks the way it does.

Not that Libraries have that much to answer for in this respect. As we’ll see tomorrow when we look at trends over time, libraries have been able to contain their costs far better than the universities to which they belong.