$1.8 million in library cuts earns faculty protest

The library will endure $1.8 million in budget cuts over the next two years. (Zhelun Lang/The Daily Campus)

The University of Connecticut library system anticipates a 9 percent budget cut equaling $1.8 million over the next two fiscal years, documents provided by the office of the vice provost for UConn libraries said. Faculty from the Literatures, Cultures and Languages Department wrote a letter dated Oct. 8, protesting the cuts, which gained over 300 signatures from multiple departments before being sent to Provost Mun Y. Choi on Oct. 30.

The cuts result from a reduction of funding to UConn from the state. They will reduce staffing and collections, which include books, videos, journals and other materials in both physical and digital form, Vice Provost for UConn Libraries Martha Bedard said.

"The staff here work tremendously hard so I'm not sure it affects so much how we're able to run as it does the services we're able to provide,” Bedard said. “It's hard to say which ones we can't because we're still trying to do it all."

The faculty letter did not contain criticism of administration of the library system, which includes the Storrs campus’ Homer D. Babbidge Library and collections in the Thomas J. Dodd Research Center as well as the regional campus libraries. It instead expressed concern at the cutting of the library resources it argues are vital to university research.

“We work in an information economy and this is a Research I university,” Literatures, Cultures & Languages Department professor Jennifer Terni writes in the faculty letter. “It is with our obligation to protect the University of Connecticut’s long-term research mission in mind that we respectfully request that the library be protected from any further cuts.”

Provost Choi issued a response to professor Gustavo Nanclares, head of the Spanish department, who officially sent the letter. All of the professors who signed were cc’d in Choi’s response.
“Our budget situation has been very challenging and prospects for the near future are worrisome with predictions of state deficits as high as $250 million for the current year,” Choi wrote in the letter. “In this environment, we’ve all had to make difficult choices and sacrifices. We have, however, done our best to protect critical academic and research programs.”

This year the libraries will reduce their book budget by about a third, from $325,500 in fiscal year 2015 to $204,700 in 2016, documents received from Bedard’s office said. The streaming video budget will shrink from $35,000 to $15,000, and the budget for journals expects cuts of $115,000.

The library will at no point stop buying books entirely, Bedard said,

"I'm an English major,” Bedard said. “I listen to faculty. We won't cut out books completely. I don't know who proposed it. Somebody might have proposed it as a strategy, but that's certainly not anything that I would support going forward."

This year’s journal cuts are expected to disproportionately affect departments within the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences because of restrictions from multi-year contracts on journals for engineering, pharmacy and business, Bedard said. A “comprehensive review” of those journals will occur next year.

The library is eliminating seven and a half staff positions (a mix of full-time and part-time positions). The employees were notified in July that they were being laid off and their contracts give them a long notice period, about a year, before their employment ends, Bedard said.

Total cuts from collections and staff will total $1.2 million in fiscal year 2016, Bedard said.

"Next year [fiscal year 2017] the projection that I've been told to plan for is another $600,000 so that's where we get this number of $1.8 million of a likely budget cut,” Bedard said.

The budget cuts come to UConn at a time when its library is underfunded in comparison to universities of similar ranking.

"One of the things that I think my letter has brought to light has been the extent of the library’s decline over the past few years,” Terni said.

At a meeting of the University Senate on March 3, 2014, Bedard gave a presentation, “State of the UConn Libraries.” The presentation showed that UConn libraries’ staffing and materials expenditures, for every year between 2008 and 2013, were lower than eight “peer institutions” designated per UConn’s own Academic Plan website.

Between 2012 and 2013, the library lost eight full-time staff members, Bedard said at the 2014 presentation. Over $1 million in “salary savings” was transferred to “address collections needs.” The necessary budget for materials in 2013 was considered to be $7,116,138.

With the cuts this year, the materials budget will be $5.8 million, Bedard said. This is over $1 million less than was considered necessary two years ago.

The faculty protest is rooted in concern that the ongoing budget cuts could impair their research. 

Professor Blair T. Johnson from the Department of Psychological Sciences wrote a letter corroborating Terni’s and explaining librarians’ significance in research.

"We need librarians even more then we did 10 or 15 years ago because there's so much more to know,” Johnson said.

Databases, particularly academic databases, are complex and require in-depth training to use properly, Johnson said.

“[The student generation is] growing up with the Internet and Google as your best friend to find stuff,” Johnson said. “You think you're good at searching. You are not good at searching. What you learn is that there are assumptions in the databases. Librarians know those assumptions.”

Johnson teaches a course on meta-analysis, a statistical technique for combining the results of multiple independent studies on similar topics to resolve uncertainties and create a boarder consensus.

“I make a point to bring a librarian into my seminar and give her an hour and a half for questions and answers with my students,” Johnson said. “I frequently see the students' eyes get wide when they see a true literature search… polished by a professional librarian. It can take a week's worth of time from someone who really knows their work.”

Meta-analysis, and by extension library input, is essential to Johnson’s work in social psychology, he said.

“I take research that has been produced by other scholars and I combine these results; I pool them,” Johnson said. “If I can't get those studies then my work is incomplete. It's not going to be as comprehensive as it needs to be… That's the kind of specter that comes to mind when I think of a weaker library."

Further more, strong research requires a measure of redundancy in resources, Terni said.

"When you become a researcher you find things by accident all the time,” Terni said. “That's why redundancy is important; because you don't know how you're going to find something."

The process of undergoing research for a scholar is complex and unpredictable, Terni said.

"You won't believe what you find by accident, but if there's only one path to that accident the chances of finding it are really small,” Terni said. “There should be many paths to that accident; that's what a good library does."

Vice Provost Bedard addressed the related concept of serendipitous browsing.

"The experience of looking in the library is serendipity,” Bedard said. “You come in looking for one thing and you find something else."

Both the faculty and the library administration, while in agreement that the budget cuts are creating difficulties, were very clear that there is no conflict between them, according to statements from both Bedard and Terni.

“It's hard to fault faculty for loving their library and wanting it to stay as relevant as possible,” Bedard said. “We don't have an adversarial relationship with faculty who are writing this letter.

Our relationship is actually quite positive, but the university had to make really hard choices.”
Terni complimented library administration’s handling of the situation.

"The library has done an extremely valiant job of reaching out to faculty to try to figure out how to cut once the cuts were announced,” Terni said. “In the letter it says that we were not consulted. We're not talking about the library not consulting us. We're talking about the upper administration not consulting us about the scope of the cuts. I want to make that very clear.”

Library administration and faculty have worked together in apportioning the cuts.

"We're trying to do it by reaching out to faculty and students and asking what's most important to you,” Bedard said. “My goal is never to cut what hurts the most so that you rattle people's cages. It's to cut what is the least painful… You’ve seen the data, we're already under-resourced, which is why it's so painful."

Bedard’s office distributed detailed information on journals eligible to be cut, she said. The lists were given to library liaisons, who then contacted and discussed with the specific departments that would be affected.

Students’ ability to weigh in on the library’s budget would likely have to be through the University Senate and the Undergraduate Student Government’s Chairperson of the Academic Affairs Committee, Venkatram Gopal said.

“If students want to have a voice in this they should approach their representative,” Gopal said.
Students are using the library now more than ever, Gopal said.

“This needs to be addressed soon,” Gopal said. “The library has had a record high gate count; the first week of school they hit 10,000 students a day and in previous years they didn’t reach that number until midterms.”

The library has been receiving approximately 10,000 to 11,000 students a day this year, which is more than came in last year for midterms, Bedard said. This does not include Bookworm’s Café, which she estimates has over a 100 seats.

“If syllabus week this year is crossing midterms week in past years, then it’s clear the library needs funds,” Gopal said. “In a research institution such as this one, if we’re not supporting our library that’s an issue. It’s something we’ll need to talk about in the next few years.”

Cuts for fiscal year 2016 are currently being enacted, but those for fiscal year 2017, while expected, are not final, Choi said in his letter to faculty.

“Final decisions about the FY17 budget rescissions for the Library have not yet been made and we will ask for your input to address increasing costs and declining state support,” Choi wrote. “I look forward to meeting with the faculty and the Deans in the coming weeks to discuss future funding for the Library and identify collaborative solutions.”

Terni and other professors are meeting with Choi later this week, she said.

"I'm a very middle of the road person,” Terni said. “I'm not an activist. I got in involved in this because it's a pragmatic issue of general concern. It's about the well-being of the university now and in the future, and the faculty is worried on both counts."


Christopher McDermott is a staff writer for The Daily Campus. He can be reached via email at christopher.mcdermott@uconn.edu.