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No New Books in the Library

That's me in Duke Humfrey's library, one of the rare book libraries at the Bodleian. You'll notice that the shelves are full of books. That's one of the distinguishing characteristics of libraries, what helps us tell them apart from car repair shops and farmer's markets.

Which reminds me of the funny thing I heard the other day, in a note from the Chief Librarian here. The University of Waterloo's Library system will not buy any more books this year. It will keep buying electronic resources, journals, and untold numbers of computer-based tools to help us keep track of our research. But no books. Why is this? Because the Library's budget team predicted that the Canadian dollar would remain in its crazy place high above the American dollar, through this year (and beyond). Mavericks! Out on a limb. No one else predicted that! If it had come true, then we wouldn't be short $500,000.00 in the budget. Unfortunately we are.

But why books? Because journal subscriptions, electronic resources, and other items like that are year-long contracts, and there is little freedom to cancel mid-term. The only flexible item in the library's budget, apparently, is books.

We all recognize that the economic situation is really tough right now, and we have been asked to view this move as part of that problem. But it's not. It would have happened anyway. Plus it's hardly even plausible: no one expected exchange rates to be as favourable to the Canadian dollar as they were for as long as they were, so where's the upside? What was budgeted then? Why haven't other potential sources of income been tapped? Where are the Arts Alumni when we really need them? Is there not a half million dollars in endowment money that could be used to fund book purchase? Why would people give all that money to help the Library renovate, if they aren't willing to come up with a few dollars each to help it have something inside it? 

Why is this not fair? Humanities research, and historical studies, rely on books from start to finish: the students and researchers rely on them as resources, and academics rely on their publication to disseminate their findings and perform that part of their job. Social sciences, sciences, engineering, and mathematics do not rely on books, but rather on journals. So this decision is much more detrimental to the humanities than to other disciplines in the University. If there are to be cuts of this scale to budgets that are essential, they should be carefully distributed.

Who is affected? We were asked by our subject librarian to identify books that were essential for our teaching -- the Provost has said he will provide a small compensatory budget to purchase those books. This is ill-informed. I work with my undergraduate students on developing their research skills; I need the Library to be a research library, with a good selection of all the best and most recent works published in the fields I work in (English Studies, History, Art History, Rhetoric). My graduate students must have resources beyond what I can name, beyond a handful of Great Books of 2008-09. Our recruiting of graduate students and faculty is severely harmed by the fact that our library will have a six-month gap in the book collection. Our own research (which we are rightly urged to maintain or intensify, for the good of the university, including its finances) will definitely suffer.

You can try writing the Chief Librarian, Mark Haslett, if you like. I don't really know what will work. We're trying what we can.