A weak pound and funding cuts have left Britain's leading Germanic studies institute struggling to buy textbooks this year.
The University of London's Institute for Germanic Studies, which enjoys a national and international reputation and got the top rating of 5 in the research assessment round, had just Pounds 1,000 to spend on new books for this academic year, according to the institute's directors.
John Flood, deputy director, said: "How we can keep up with the latest research is beyond me. Quite frankly it is disastrous. We'll be lucky if we can afford ten new books this year."
Professor Flood placed much of the blame on the long-term slide in the value of sterling against the German mark and other European currencies. Ten years ago Pounds 1 would have bought DM4 worth of books, but now it buys just DM2.23. German books, which tend to be hardback, are also traditionally expensive regardless of exchange rates.
Edward Batley, honorary director of the institute, which was founded in 1950, said that funding cuts, past and present, had increased the budgetary pressures on universities, with knock-on funding implications for all libraries. "A 7 per cent cut is already working its way through university libraries and this will certainly not make things any better," he said.
The institute is now faced with a stark choice: either maintain the current level of spending on standing order and subscriptions, which amounts to Pounds -28,000 of the total Pounds 29,000 budget, or cancel some journals to wring another Pounds 1,000 or so out for the books budget.
Bill Abbey, librarian, said: "We have never had to carry out a periodical cancellation until now. I fear we will lose our sense of currency. We will not be keeping up with all the new research."
Mr Abbey said that the 82,500-volume library had suffered prolonged underfunding and had had to employ volunteers under a save-a-book scheme for the past three or four years to help rebind books. This has meant that some 20 to 30 books have been rebound a year when the library says it should be doing hundreds annually.
According to language experts, the plight of the Institute for Germanic Studies is symptomatic of problems facing other specialist libraries which buy foreign language books and periodicals.
Jill Forbes, of Bristol University and chairman of the French panel in the current research assessment exercise, said: "The fall in the value of the pound has hit foreign book purchases, primarily European. That coupled with the existing pressure on library budgets means that in the medium term the effects will be very damaging to many universities' pretentions to have research libraries."
Toby Bainton, secretary of the Standing Conference on National and University Libraries, said that the problem was common to all university libraries, not just at research institutes, and that it was exacerbated by growing numbers of students and by changes in teaching, that mean more project and modular work that, in turn, means heavier library use.
Carl Clayton, professional adviser to the Library Association, sounded warning bells for the future. "We are very concerned. Most material is still published in the printed form and if libraries cannot buy the material here and now then they are unlikely to be able to make up for it in the future."
Mr Clayton said that library funding and finances were likely to be discussed at the next meeting of the association's academic library committee on January 31.
Figures produced by the Library and Information Statistics Unit at the Loughborough University of Technology show that real book spend per student at the old universities fell from Pounds 64.60 in 1983/84 to Pounds 35.65 in 1993/94 while real periodical spend per capita fell from Pounds 103.38 to Pounds 59.59 in the same period.
The equivalent figures for the new universities were respectively Pounds 31.80 and Pounds 24.75 and Pounds 37.80 and Pounds 18.40.