Digitize Academic Libraries

Historically, the university library has been a massive building at the heart of the college campus offering students a myriad of resources, including volumes of books, periodicals, and documents; staff that offer research assistance; meeting space; and access to advanced research technologies. Most of these elements persist today despite the changing role of the university library in the rapidly developing information technology age. The continually rising costs of academic libraries can be mitigated with better use of digital technology.

The Rising Costs of Operating an Academic Library

Today, many publications collect dust on the shelves from years of neglect, while students and researchers obtain most of their research materials from the internet. Between 1996 and 2006, total circulations (borrowed items) declined by 18.8 percent at U.S. academic libraries. Yet, libraries continued to add to their physical collections, as the total number of volumes increased by 25.9 percent to more than 1 billion during the period, expending $705 million on books and bound materials in 2006, a 16.1 percent inflation-adjusted increase from the decade prior.

Academic libraries are costly to operate. The average academic library spent $1.72 million in 2006, an inflation-adjusted increase of 6.3 percent from the 1996 figure of $1.62 million.442 Total academic library expenditures in 2006 topped $6.2 billion, a real increase of 12.8 percent from 1996. The increase in expenditures on books and bound serials discussed above accounted for 14 percent of the increase in total academic library expenditures during the time period, but this was only the third largest contributor to the ballooning academic library budgets. An increase in real expenditures on the salaries and wages of library staff accounted for nearly half of the increase, but it was the increase in real expenditures on serial subscriptions (academic journals) that contributed the most, accounting for 73 percent of the rise in expenditures by academic libraries between 1996 and 2006.443 Table 18.1 displays expenditures by function in 1996 and 2006, the percentage of total expenditures for each function in the two periods, the change in expenditures by function between the two periods, and the percentage contribution to the rise in expenditures by function between 1996 and 2006. Figures are in inflation-adjusted, constant 2006 dollars.

Table 18.1: Academic Library Expenditures by Function, 1996 & 2006 (Constant 2006 Dollars)
Table 18.1: Academic Library Expenditures by Function, 1996 & 2006 (Constant 2006 Dollars)


The Benefits of Digitizing and Integrating Libraries

Libraries are increasingly integrating and sharing their resources. This means that individual libraries have access to one another’s research materials and other resources through the internet or other means of electronic delivery. These efforts are made possible due to the advances in information technology that have enabled the digitization and rapid sharing of research materials. While there are startup costs required to digitize library collections, the potential to significantly reduce long-run acquisition and operational costs are significant.

As libraries increasingly digitize and share resources electronically, storage and facilities costs will decline substantially. Collections that have been transformed into electronic versions could be archived, reducing costs to a fraction of the cost to store physical volumes. One estimate suggested that electronic books can be stored by private repositories for between $0.15 and $0.40 per volume annually, whereas the average cost to preserve a physical book is around $4.26 per year. Even moving volumes to an off-site storage would result in savings, as it is estimated that the unit cost for “high density,” (bulk, non-display) storage is $0.86.

Digital archiving would also free up space previously dedicated to library stacks for alternative uses, such as computer workstations or office space, thereby reducing the need for additional facilities on campus and the associated construction and operational costs. In addition, the digitization and integration of academic libraries would reduce the number of employees needed to staff an academic library, which would reduce costs considerably since 50 percent of library expenditures in 2006 were for staff wages and compensation.

As libraries increasingly share electronic collections, the cost of acquiring research materials will be reduced as library consortia take advantage of enhanced buying power to negotiate lower licensing fees for periodicals and monographs. It is also likely that print publishing will decline in lieu of electronic publishing, which has much lower fixed costs than physical printing. The increased reliance on digital research materials would also make it easier to analyze collection usage to determine which services are worth subscribing to. Significant savings are possible, as combined periodical subscriptions and book purchases amounted to $2.2 billion in 2006, or 35 percent of total library expenditures.

Digital libraries would also permit users to conduct research from virtually anywhere in the world, reducing the geographic constraints that currently limit access to research materials to those residing on or near a campus library. This would compliment online distance learning perfectly, as users could electronically access research materials online 24/7 with the flexibility to work remotely at their own pace and would not have to incur the costs of commuting to the campus library.

In addition, digital library collections have the potential to be a source of income for the larger research libraries and provide lower cost access to library collections to smaller institutions, which may lack the funds to maintain significant collections or provide essential library services. The Johns Hopkins University library, for example, signed a $1 million contract in 2008 with Excelsior College, a distance-learning institution, to provide a virtual library and services for Excelsior. This is a mutually beneficial arrangement, as JHU gains additional revenue and Excelsior obtains access to a much broader library collection and services than it would otherwise be able to attain on its own.


Technology Presents an Opportunity to Integrate Academic Library Systems

Institutions continue to spend greater amounts of money on academic libraries while at the same time relative student use of these facilities is declining. In 2006, academic libraries reported a gate count (number of persons who physically enter) of 18.8 million visitors per typical week, an increase of 13.9 percent from 16.5 million visitors in 1996.  However, student enrollment grew by 23.6 percent over the period, from 14.4 to 17.8 million students. This suggests a 7.8 percent decline in the average student use of library facilities. The proliferation of the internet and personal computers likely has played a major role in this, as students can access research materials online from virtually anywhere. This has reduced the role that the physical library plays in academic research and brings into question the need for 3,600+ individual academic libraries in the U.S., each with its own costly collection of publications and periodicals. Some colleges have acknowledged this and have begun to make strides towards integrated library systems, such as collaborative storage networks, consortium purchasing and license sharing.

Collaborative storage networks allow libraries to share the cost of valuable, yet onerous print collections through efforts such as inter-library loan programs and collection digitization. Library consortia are able to realize cost savings by sharing their print and subscription repositories, as well as coordinating their buying efforts in order to obtain better deals from publishers.

One such effort is OhioLINK Electronic Journal Center (EJC), a licensing program that serves Ohio’s colleges and universities. Under OhioLINK, all of the state’s public colleges and universities, as well as 38 independent colleges, combine their funds to make a group purchase of full sets of electronic publisher journals. This helps alleviate the rising costs of academic journals by increasing the participating institution’s purchasing power. The consortium also provides each institution access to a larger number of journals than would otherwise have been the case. An open letter from some early adopters of this arrangement indicated that journal prices rose around 8 percent per year, but the consortium was able to control its annual cost increases to between 4 and 5.5 percent.

There are several other examples of collaborative library efforts in existence. One is the Greater Western Library Alliance, a consortium made up of 32 research libraries in 17 Midwestern and Western states that share electronic resources, engage in interlibrary lending, and collaborate on programs such as collection development, scholarly communication, staff development, and continuing education. Another effort is the Pennsylvania Academic Library Consortium Inc., comprised of 76 libraries located in Pennsylvania, New Jersey, and West Virginia, whose objectives are resource sharing, collaboration and cooperation, the exchange of ideas, and leadership. On the international scale, there is the Center for Research Libraries, a consortium of global universities, colleges, and independent research libraries. It is dedicated to the acquisition and preservation of newspapers, journals, and other sources from around the world to be made available to researchers by interlibrary lending and electronic delivery.

One system, the California Digital Library, is experimenting with what it calls “evidence-based” analysis to “help libraries throughout the system decide what's still worth paying for and how much it ought to cost.”  An example of this relates to academic journals in which 

…the analysis takes into account how much use they get, how much they cost relative to other publishers' offerings, and their impact factors, a measure of how often articles from a particular journal are cited in a given period of time. That information goes to librarians throughout the system, who use it to make decisions about what is most worth keeping.

Such innovative systems have the potential to significantly reduce costs by reducing the number of minimally used volumes kept on hand.

The Digitization of Library Collections is Essential to Integration

Strategic resource sharing among academic libraries has experienced some success, with the digitization of library collections playing an increasingly important role. According to UCBerkeley librarian Thomas Leonard, libraries have already made significant progress in digitizing their collections, suggesting that there have already been millions of dollars in benefits realized. Even so, there is room for continued improvement and additional long-run cost savings.

Serial subscriptions (journals) are increasingly available in electronic format through repositories such as JSTOR, which electronically archives back issues of more than 1,000 academic journals, and Project Muse, which provides online access to more than 400 current journals. Despite the widespread availability of electronic scholarly journals and studies that “suggest that an electronic-only environment would be more cost-effective than print-only for most journals, with cost savings for both libraries and publishers,”  many academic libraries continue to subscribe to dual formats – print and electronic. By systemically transitioning from a dual journal format to an exclusively electronic one, academic libraries can achieve additional savings on serial subscriptions.

Scholars Lavoie and Schonfeld predict that “print collections will likely undergo significant transformation as libraries continue to reshape themselves in the networked digital age” and that these “transformations will take place within a system-wide context.” They estimate that there are around 32 million books, of which approximately 20 percent are held by ten or more libraries, catalogued in WorldCat–the world’s largest and most comprehensive bibliographic resource—and that “mass digitization could create a collection that is significantly larger than our largest research libraries.”

Several book digitization efforts are currently underway. The Google Library Book Project is an attempt to electronically catalog and make available for preview or download millions of volumes by partnering with some of the largest library collections in the world, such as The New York Public Library, Stanford University, Harvard University and the University of Michigan. The digitization and systemic sharing of monograph and serial collections would lower the long-run costs, such as storage and preservation, for academic libraries, as well as provide access to more geographically dispersed users who lack access to major research libraries.

Limitations and Challenges

The digitization and integration of academic libraries is not without costs and limitations. The biggest obstacles to overcome are technical and cost issues, political resistance, and legal challenges.

First, as with all technology, there are technical and cost issues to address. The integration of library collections relies on a network of compatible systems in order for libraries to share resources. This requires investments in reliable, secure and fast IT networks, as well as electronic storage of information. Rather than trying to do all these things internally, it would often be more cost effective for colleges to outsource these services to specialized IT firms.

The digitization of existing library collections is a labor intensive process that is subject to human error. Libraries themselves are not likely to take on such a daunting task, but IT firms have specialized teams dedicated to book digitization efforts. Specialized labor does not, however, exclude the possibility of poor scanning, mislabeling or other human errors that could undermine the quality of the resulting project. As more new collection materials are procured in the digital format, this becomes less of an issue.

Another limitation to the downsizing of traditional academic libraries is political resistance from groups such as library employees, faculty researchers and students. In 2006, an estimated 94,000 full-time equivalent staff were employed by academic libraries. This large group of employees is not likely to take lightly an effort to consolidate their jobs—a step that is essential to realize cost savings as employee salaries amounted to more than $3.1 billion in 2006, or 50 percent of total expenditures by academic libraries. Faculty and students have also demonstrated opposition to the digitization of libraries, making claims such as the “need to be able browse books on the shelves so that they can serendipitously discover related works.”  Another potential obstacle is faculty resistance—one report suggests “that it could take up to half a century—or two generations of faculty—before faculty in certain disciplines will abide the preeminence of digital over print.”

Finally, the digitization and integration of library collections is not expected to be welcomed with open arms by the publishing industry. There are copyright and licensing issues that need to be addressed. In the effort to digitize library archives, many volumes are protected by copyright and are therefore unable to be made fully available digitally. Issues have been raised by publishers against even previews of a copyright-protected book being made available. Journal publishers are also likely to respond with legal action against increased efforts to share licenses.


Students continue to make less frequent trips to the library as they are able to access research materials from a distance with innovations such as online journal collections. As more research materials become digital and libraries increasingly become integrated, the need for a centralized and expansive library on every campus will decline. This presents an opportunity for colleges to reduce their operational and facility costs by digitizing more of their collections and finding alternative uses for the space that is currently used to shelve archives.

The larger library systems also have the opportunity to earn additional revenues by making their collections available to libraries that could not otherwise provide such research materials for themselves. This would be a win-win for both types of institutions. While the move towards increased digital collections is already underway, the further integration of library systems will create additional efficiencies that could help bring the growing costs of college under control.