Canada’s University Libraries Are In Peril

by Raywat Deonandan

This article first appeared in The Huffington Post on Dec 13, 2016. The author retains all rights.

Universities and colleges across Canada are having their budgets severely tightened for a host of reasons, some more rational than others. In this quest for slashing costs, libraries have found themselves on the chopping block. To many, this move represents an attack on the very idea of scholarship, and the undermining of the nation’s quest to be a leader in the knowledge economy.

The University of Ottawa, where I do my teaching and research, recently announced that it will be reducing its library budget by almost $2 million. Since staffing is already at a bare minimum, with the librarian-to-student ratio at the second lowest in the province , the library has opted to absorb this cut by discontinuing its subscriptions to some very popular scholarly journals.

Understandably, there has been outcry among all members of the University community–students, professors, researchers, librarians, and even some administrators–who claim that cuts to the library are an assault on the very idea of a university. It began with the cancellation of a handful of journal titles. But this assault may progress to a more profound diminishing of the capacity of a library system to catalyze knowledge and accelerate learning.

It’s important that all citizens understand the role that libraries and librarians play. Their importance transcends their roles as gatekeepers to books and journals. They are genuinely both the memory vault of scholarship and learned guides that help us navigate the increasingly expansive morass of data, information, copyright, and information technology.

University libraries are where sensitive data, such as census and government survey data, are made available to researchers, serving as the guarantors of Canadians’ privacy and security. Librarians train researchers and students alike in the art and science of finding relevant information to inform their work, and show us where the lesser known, yet deeply valuable, global source materials are archived. They are conduits to accessing materials, data and knowledge in institutions in other countries. They are the masters of archiving the results of our scholarly work, making them freely available to the public.

Personally, I’ve been pleasantly surprised by the extent to which my university library has been indispensable in helping me to keep abreast of the constant changes to copyright law, which is such an underappreciated service in an era in which teaching materials draw from a multitude of online resources.

In addition, librarians are frankly the only profession who can regularly make sense of the emerging field of bibliometrics, which is the science of measuring the acceptance, reach and influence of scholarly work, which is so important in a time rife with accusations of scholastic fraud and politicized science.

Consequently, we need to keep in mind the paths by which the hobbling of university libraries profoundly affect every citizen and taxpayer, especially considering that by reducing a library’s ability to purchase journal subscriptions, the financial burden for such purchases falls upon the individual students and researchers. To read an individual article in a top journal costs about US$30, while a yearly subscription costs about US$200 per person.

A given undergraduate essay would have about twelve citations, which would therefore cost that student over $300. To write several such essays in a school year could be staggeringly expensive, absent the group subscription purchasing service offered by the library. In short, the decision to cut access to key journals may cost us more in the long run and download these costs onto individuals.

Research in Canadian universities is largely funded by government grants which, in turn, are funded from tax dollars. The results of such research are therefore owned theoretically by the Canadian taxpayer. They are public goods. The scholastic process demands that researchers communicate their findings formally in refereed journals, to ensure the highest standards of objective rigour and the greatest likelihood that the work is at the bleeding frontier of knowledge.

But the best journals in the world are still mostly so-called “closed access” journals, which means that a fee or a paid subscription is required to read them. These are the journals to which university libraries provide free access for students and scholars. In absence of this service, Canadian taxpayers who wish to read the results of research that they have paid for must pay once more.

This is, in essence, a kind of double taxation, which has helped to spur the more ethical “open access” movement, which in turn has seen the explosion of journals whose content is available without cost. But slow moving university culture still undervalues such journals, with some professors being denied tenure and promotion if they are perceived to rely overly on open access publishing . Therefore, for the foreseeable future, having libraries bear the cost and responsibility of securing access to closed access journals is essential to guarantee scholars access to the best knowledge in the world.

Interestingly, most of these journals are either American or British, which means that this kind of double taxation of the Canadian user isn’t even an investment in Canadian industry. It also means library subscriptions provide a cost buffer to the user against the largely unpredictable fluctuations in currency exchange rates.

In the digital era, the vision most have of the university library is no longer of a silent cathedral of books. It’s a centre of living learning, the access point to a global network of data, services, publications, and information expertise, as well as the defender of archived intellectual products. It has evolved over the years, but it remains the scholastic heart of the modern university. We wound that heart at our own peril.