Soaring publication prices hit university libraries just when they were getting to grips with greater student demand and the information revolution. Kam Patel asks if they can rise to the challenges.
The relentless rise in the cost of journals over the past few decades has been the single biggest factor affecting the postwar funding of university libraries, according to Fred Friend, director of scholarly communications at University College London.
Mr Friend says that library funds have been drained by the publishers' price hikes, running at 10 to 15 per cent annually. Libraries would have started integrating sophisticated digital technologies a lot sooner if it had not been for this cost, he says.
Data gathered by the Library and Information Statistics Unit at Loughborough University shows that the average annual price of journals has gone from Pounds 110 in 1986 to Pounds 340 in 1997. This is a rise of 308 per cent.
Mr Friend does not put all the blame on publishers. "Academic pressure to avoid cancellations combined with librarians' obsession with the size of collection have helped publishers to get away with it," he said.
The problem is worldwide, Mr Friend says. In the United States journal prices rose by 169 per cent between 1986 and 1997.
Academics are fighting back by launching transnational electronic publishing schemes such as SPARC. Backed by the US Association of Research Libraries and the United Kingdom's Standing Conference of National and University Libraries, SPARC aims to exploit the electronic medium to undermine commercial publishers. It will offer top-quality peer-reviewed academic journals at a fraction of the price charged by commercial publishers. These will compete head to head with established print publications.
University libraries also need to cooperate more. Universities have always professed to being very keen on this, but so far services, such as inter-library loaning, have barely changed.
LISU data shows that the percentage of loans made through inter-library arrangements is stubbornly low - just above 2 per cent between 1991-92 and 1995-96. Last year this figure dropped to just below 2 per for the first time in the 1990s.
This persistently disappointing performance on the inter-library loan front lies in the culture of competition between independent institutions, Mr Friend says. "There will need to be far more cooperation between universities at institutional level before there can be significantly more cooperation between their libraries."
Much confidence has been placed in the "digital library" as a means of improving collaboration and reducing the need to rely on conventional print resources. This confidence is misplaced, Mr Friend says. "The many computer terminals give a superficial impression of a digital haven, whereas most information lib-raries obtain is still paper-based.
"Most academics and librarians are reluctant to take steps to benefit from networked electronic information. Only time will tell whether they are right to hold largely to books and journals they are familiar with, risking only small steps of change, or whether the time has come to make more fundamental changes."
Mr Friend's circumspection over the impact of IT on libraries is backed up by Clare Jenkins, executive secretary of the Consortium of University Research Libraries, which represents the 20 major research libraries including Edinburgh, Cambridge, University College London and the London School of Economics.
She says the rapid growth of electronic information has had "no impact" on the demand for traditional research resources. If anything, IT systems have stimulated greater use of print-based material by providing researchers with sophisticated tools for tracking printed and archival material that was previously difficult to find. Rather than it being a case of digital versus print in institutions, the reality is more the "hybrid" library in which the use of print and computer is inter-related.
"Researchers are becoming used to moving between the two, and libraries make a critical contribution by making this as easy as possible, with the newly emerging breed of information professional playing a vital role," Ms Jenkins says.
Digital imaging technology has the potential to help preserve rare and fragile originals by making images of them. But the technology's impact has not been overwhelming partly because its cost.
There are long-term and not completely understood problems relating to the preservation of digital data itself. Until these problems are solved and more money is found, digital imaging will continue to be seen as an often expensive option to the array of conventional preservation methods, such as binding, paper conservation and microfilming.
But for research libraries, preservation issues in a digital environment go wider than the print-based archival material. An emerging challenge is dealing with the increasing number of publications that appear only in electronic format. "We are having to get to grips with how to manage the long-term preservation of such resources - an increasing number of which are multimedia," Ms Jenkins says.
"The technical, organisational and economic challenges that this responsibility presents are only starting to be addressed."
CURL has become concerned about the heavy use of a small number of research libraries (about 15 to 20) by researchers based at institutions other than the host. These libraries are not being compensated for the staff time and effort taken to deal with these external researchers.
The cost to libraries in dealing with external researchers is estimated to be between Pounds 6 million and Pounds 10 million across the sector with the top 20 institutions incurring additional costs in excess of Pounds 100,000. The top five are thought to be incurring additional costs of as much as Pounds 500,000 each.
CURL is hoping the Higher Education Funding Council for England will soon make provision to recompense those institutions whose resources are most heavily used.
The backdrop to the pressure on libraries is a massive expansion in the number of people they serve. Toby Bainton, chairman of the SCONUL says that new universities in particular have seen a dramatic increase in student:staff ratios.
During 1995-96, each professional library staff member in these institutions served 65 per cent more people than ten years previously.
"That is quite a ratio to cope with, and it is not getting any better in any kind of university library, old or new. The pressures on an essentially labour intensive service remain considerable," Mr Bainton says.
SCONUL estimates there were 102 million visitors to UK university libraries in 1996-97 - an average of almost one million per institution. Excluding photocopying, visitors between them clocked up 280 million transactions - equivalent to about 2.7 million transactions in a typical library or 237 annually per enrolled full-time equivalent student.
But despite the many financial and operational pressures that have built up, Mr Bainton says they continue to do "a fairly good job" meeting their obligations with tight control of material and staffing costs.
Like CURL, SCONUL is also keen to stress that this has been achieved while there has been dramatic growth in computer-based information that has had no dampening effect on the demand for printed material.
SCONUL figures show for instance that loans have risen by nearly a third over the past five years to 63 million a year for the whole sector.
"That represents about 25 kilometres of books to be reshelved every week: no help from computers there," Mr Bainton says.