Libraries Embrace Digital Content in Face of Budget Constraints

Feb 15, 2011

At the very time that library budgets were being slashed, demand for the services provided by these institutions was increasing in the communities they served. Libraries have had to reprioritize and get creative with budgets. A new study called "Funding and Priorities: The Library Resource Guide Benchmark Study On 2011 Library Spending Plans" takes a look at how these pressures are manifesting in all types of libraries across the country. Produced by the Library Resource Guide (LRG) in conjunction with Unisphere Research, the market research division of Information Today, Inc (ITI), research was conducted in October and November 2010 among libraries listed in ITI's American Library Directory.

According to the study, " response to the recent recession, close to half of the libraries reporting said that they've cut materials budgets, eliminated budgets for travel or conferences, and frozen salaries. At the same time, many have come up with new ways to fund programs, and tight budgets are also accelerating the drive to digitize collections and shift to electronic content subscriptions."

With an average 39% of libraries surveyed reporting a budget decrease from 2009-2010-and 26% expecting another decrease in 2011-many are being forced to streamline operations and turn to digital strategies. Online subscriptions acquisitions and ebooks were at the top of the list of areas seeing increased spending over the last year. The study says, "While many libraries were faced with hard choices as to how to pare down their annual budgets, spending for online information remained noticeably stable, the survey finds. Libraries report almost twice as much of an increase in demand for electronic or digital resources than printed materials. However, print still commands a lion's share of annual budgets."

Judy Luther, President of Informed Strategies, says that in many cases university libraries are already ahead of the digital curve. Research libraries have been making the switch to digital for years, in part due to the accessibility of online journals, while books are just now being digitized.

The report says an average of 41% of libraries report an increase in patron requests for ebooks over the past year. Luther notes that Google Books, the iPad, and Kindle have come together in a "perfect storm" to drive a change in the availability and readability of ebooks. Of course, many cash-strapped readers who turn to their local libraries do not have expensive ereader devices. "Estimates are that by 2014 more tablet devices than desktops will be sold. "Tablets and readers will become ubiquitous in 18-24 months," Luther says. While reference works and journal collections have had many years to make the transition to digital form, ebooks are just now becoming more readily available, and the library response to these products is still evolving.

In many ways, the economic crisis and ensuing budget crunch that many libraries have experienced has accelerated some trends. "While the economic crisis has unfortunately impacted collections," says Luther, " it's also prompted libraries to streamline operations." She adds, "The big question is ‘What am I going to stop doing?'... Technology is easy, it's the people part that's hard."

The LRG study reflects Luther's sentiments; 64% of respondents said "keeping up with changes in information technology" is one of the most pressing concerns over the next five years, coming in just behind continuing budget concerns. Since the changes in the econtent marketplace show no sign of slowing down, libraries would do well to embrace the technology, and content providers should respond to library needs-providing solutions that both help with budget woes and making digital and mobile content accessible.