Million-dollar library budget cut hinders resource access, burdens librarians

By Catherine McLaughlin

Abigail Chang
College librarians have been tasked with managing pandemic-related changes to the library’s resources and operations, including retrieving books for students now that the stacks are closed.

The Middlebury College Libraries had its non-personnel budget cut by nearly a third for the 2021 fiscal year, resulting in reduced or delayed access to databases, journals and books, as well as an increasing reliance on interlibrary loan (ILL).

This cutback is part of a larger plan to reduce spending in Academic Affairs departments by a third, with the goal of balancing Middlebury’s budget. 

As a result of extensive library budget cuts, students and faculty have lost access to — or face new challenges in accessing — needed research materials, and librarians have shouldered the burden of managing the fallout.

The budget for fiscal year 2021 is $2,384,502, compared to the budget of $3,404,537 for fiscal year 2021 — a decrease of more than a million dollars. Dean of the Library Michael Roy says that this cut compounds increasing costs due to cost inflation, with the price of library materials typically rising 5-6% each year, or about $150,000. 

The book budget for the year was hit hard by these cuts, decreasing from $120,000 per year to almost zero. The library also canceled subscriptions to many databases and streaming services. 

Other services were transitioned to a token system. In contrast to the previous unlimited access model, the college now pays for a finite supply of tokens that are used to purchase access to sources individually. The library had to estimate the demand for the services on a token system when purchasing its token supply. It is possible that those tokens — and the funds available to purchase more of them — will run out. 

Students and faculty have come across even more hurdles to request materials and experienced delays in accessing them. 

Professor of Physics Eilat Glikman specializes in astrophysics and mentors seniors completing her department’s required senior work program. Glikman and her students rely on research to get current and relevant views of their topics. Many scholarly articles behind a paywall become accessible for free after a certain number of years, but database logins give access to more recently published sources that remain behind a paywall. 

Because Middlebury has cut many of its subscriptions, faculty and students in some fields do not have access to up-to-date published works. The library’s focus on the databases with the most traffic means that more niche subject fields, like astrophysics, and smaller academic departments were disproportionately impacted by these subscription cancellations. 

History Professor Louisa Burnham said that students and faculty in her department have struggled alongside one another to obtain articles for class and research. The department has had to cut down on the amount of research in advanced courses because of the increased challenges to accessing materials, and Burnham said she is concerned fewer students will pursue thesis projects because of those challenges.

When articles are not available through Middlebury’s library, they can be requested through interlibrary loan (ILL), a system historically used more for book sharing. 

ILL is a process by which materials not available at Middlebury can be borrowed from another college’s library that does have access or ownership. Articles now unavailable through the college’s database subscriptions must be requested individually through ILL.

As students and faculty increasingly have to turn to interlibrary loan, they described frustration with delays for materials that they once had immediate access to.

Dean Roy said that the goal is for electronic ILL transfers to be completed within 24 hours, but that the majority of requests this year have been completed within three days.

Associate Professor of Biology Mark Spritzer said that the token system has not interrupted his teaching and research. Still, he said, “the delays are noticeable.” 

Erica Bisaillon ’22, who takes classes in the political science, film, psychology and history departments, said that most students, especially during finals season, do not have long periods of time to do research for their projects and have to complete their work at all hours. Even the most timely ILL transfers are not compatible with the pace of the academic schedule. 

Glikman also expressed dissatisfaction with the reliance on ILL. 

“The problem with the interlibrary loan alternative is that it does not align with how research is actually done,” she said. “It is a bit of a hunt involving skimming many papers and their own references to find what I am looking for. This process is not compatible with interlibrary loan, which takes hours to days to gain access to a single paper.” 

Sometimes, when students and faculty find their access cut off entirely or the barriers to access too large, they turn to self-supported paths to access. 

Sophie Clark ’21 is completing a thesis for her political science major. For the majority of her research she uses her login with the University College London, where she studied abroad last spring. 

“I’m super paranoid that I’m going to get kicked out of their system,” she said. “I have to double-check and save everything that I download with their login just in case.”

Bisallion has, on multiple occasions, self-subscribed to journals when she needed access for a homework assignment, spending about a hundred dollars this school year. 

But these options are not available to all students.

The changes also pose an accessibility problem because many students are uninformed of the extent to which library format changed and feel ill-equipped to navigate the new system. Bisaillon and Clark both said they had “no idea” how it worked for articles. 

Those that are well versed, like Sophie Hochman ’22, still find interlibrary loan to be a less-than-ideal substitute. 

“The silver lining is that the interlibrary loan office is fantastic, and they can always get me what I need,” Hochman said. “But it feels kind of disheartening when I’ll do a few hours of work looking for journal article after journal article and the library doesn’t have any of them — and I’m definitely under the impression that they used to.”

Some faculty have also been insufficiently updated about changes in library access. 

Hochman, a sociology and gender, sexuality and feminist studies (GSFS) double major, said that on multiple occasions in her Feminist Engaged Research class, “readings that the professor had assigned year after year suddenly weren’t there anymore.” Both professor and students were surprised by their inability to access the readings, and the tight turnaround of the typical homework assignment meant ILL was not an option. Clark had a similar experience in a political science class, as well. 

The greatest burden of managing the fallout of library budget cuts falls on the librarians. 

The escalation of demand for ILL has dramatically increased the workload of those who process the requests, according to Roy. Accommodations for online learning means more resources need to be digitized and made available remotely. The library’s subject guides, called Libguides, organize library resources according to certain subjects and even specific courses. Librarians have had to update Libguides to no longer include materials to which the library has terminated access. The college-wide hiring freeze left one vacant librarian position, exacerbating these challenges. 

The cuts have also strained the expectations placed on faculty. 

Glikman and Spritzer both said that the cuts are especially concerning for junior faculty, whose ability to earn tenure, get promoted and keep their jobs at Middlebury relies on their ability to publish in journals that they now may not be able to access.

Spritzer said that, given the challenges of the last year, budget cuts were inevitable. But that, when compounded with a pay freeze, they would not be manageable for faculty long term.

“Expecting more effort from professors for less pay is definitely not sustainable,” Spritzer said.

Such deep cuts to the library, of all places, struck a chord for many.

“You are supposedly this institution of higher education, you have this prestigious reputation of being an academically rigorous school, and you want to maintain that — but you’re making it more difficult for your students to actually learn,” Bisaillon said. 

“When I saw that subscriptions to some of the most basic journals in History were being cut, I just couldn’t believe it,” said Burnham. “I feel very upset for our students that they have such second-rate access to the kinds of materials any college library should have.” 

Editor’s Note: Managing Editor Harriet LeFavour contributed reporting.