The economic crisis and the preservation function of libraries

If you’re like me, you work in a library that is facing tough decisions (no irony intended by that cliché phrase) as a result of budget cuts during the economic crisis. The choice between cutting staff and cutting the budget for materials is the easy one – protect the people who work in the library and do with less than an adequate budget for books and videos until things turn around.

Beyond that the decisions begin to get more difficult, because acquisitions budgets were already tight before the economy entered into a recession.

I would like to emphasize what I believe is an important consideration as we think this problem through, one based on the long view and the preservation function of libraries. I can see us looking back on this period 20 years from now, and being saddened by a tragic hole that exists in the written record because of a lack of funds for collecting certain materials for some number of years. What kinds of materials might we end up wishing we had collected but now find it tempting to cut out of the budget? In terms of preservation, it is most likely going to be materials that aren’t collected and preserved by a major research library, which probably means materials published in your own region or locality, or in a specialty that is unique to your institution. For example, if you are paying to have a local or regional newspaper microfilmed or digitized, there may be no one else doing it if you discontinue that activity now. If you’re considering discontinuing a print subscription to something obscure that has an important role in the activities of your own faculty because it’s been picked up by an aggregator, you should consider that the written record may ultimately depend on your maintaining that print subscription. And to make matters more difficult, institutions aren’t sharing much information with each other at present about what they are considering cutting.

What I want to point out is that our preservation role is at its most important during those times when it’s hardest to maintain, because others, under the same pressures, may not be doing the job.