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Libraries hit by falling pound

University libraries are facing budget shortfalls of hundreds of thousands of pounds this year as a result of the falling value of the pound against the euro and the US dollar, Research Fortnight has been told.

“The plunging pound is causing enormous problems,” said John MacColl, chairman of Research Libraries UK. “My conservative estimate is that across the board, our members are facing an average shortfall of around £150,000 for this year alone.” A survey conducted by RLUK of its 37 members has so far returned eight responses. The combined shortfall reported by these eight libraries for the financial year 2016-17 was £1.5 million, said MacColl.

Richard Ovenden, Bodley’s librarian and director of the Bodleian Libraries in Oxford, said that he was facing £280,000 in additional costs due to the drop in the pound. Before the 23 June Brexit vote, £1 was worth $1.49. Now £1 is worth about $1.22. Ovenden noted that of the £7m that the library spends annually, about £2m is paid in dollars and euros.

The pound’s fall is affecting research libraries in two ways, said Ovenden. Many universities are locked into multiyear deals with large publishers that are paid in euros or dollars. There are also individual journal subscriptions paid annually in foreign currency. Many monographs are also bought from overseas, noted Ovenden. Ovenden and MacColl both agreed that libraries were unlikely to receive more central funding as university budgets are already strained because of the exchange rate. “We are discussing with the university centrally the possibility of contingency funding, but the university is facing a variety of challenges due to the falling value of the pound. At the moment this means it is likely we will have to start making cancellations,” said Ovenden.

Heidi Fraser-Krauss, director of information services at the University of York, said that her annual subscription budget was about £2.4m and the shortfall faced this year could be up to £70,000. “We are in a difficult position. My role covers IT as well, and I’ve seen that computing and lab equipment has become extremely expensive, particularly equipment from America,” she said. Fraser-Krauss noted that libraries already regularly review their budgets, so making further cuts would be tough. “We frequently ask academics if they’re certain they really need things; there really isn’t much wriggle room. There’s very little we can do.”

“We were braced for problems after Brexit, but we didn’t expect the fall in the pound to be so long-lasting,” said MacColl. “The move of the markets following the referendum was really quite dramatic,” said Ovenden. He noted that he had been advised that it was unlikely for the pound to pick up significant value before journal subscriptions are due to be renewed at the end of the year.

All three said that they would consult with academics on the best way forward, but Ovenden said the situation was serious. “Potentially the impact is that the latest research is not going to be accessible to our researchers and the impact of that on society is going to be felt in very practical terms,” he said.

This article also appeared in Research Fortnight