Publication Date

March 1, 1992

Perspectives Section




The library is the heart of the university, but faculty know little of its operation. Faculty, therefore, sometimes, accept poor standards of service or a lack of responsiveness to their needs. This doesn’t have to be the case. Through a better understanding of how the library works and what goes on behind the scenes, faculty can make informed judgments of library performance and distinguish between reasonable and unreasonable expectations.



Few faculty members know the details of how universities allocate money to their libraries. Faculty have the right, however, to expect that their institutions allocate money to the library on some verifiable and reasonable basis. Historically, libraries in well-funded universities have sought 6 percent of the institutions’ instructional budget. Although some universities are still close to that 6 percent figure, the rise of academic computing services, which are generally funded from the same academic support account as the library, has tended to cut into that budget. If a large amount of money has recently been invested in academic computing at your college, your library may be suffering.

A comparison of your library’s budget with a realistic list of peer or equivalent schools is the best indicator of the appropriate level of funding for the library. A peer or equivalent school is one that is similar in size, region, and student population to your own. Or, to put it more cynically, one that your president wishes would treat your school as an equal. To use the most recent figures available, from the fall of 1988, $3,618,394 in total library operating expenses were needed to reach the fiftieth percentile for public doctoral-granting universities and $5,742,888 was required to reach the ninetieth percentile. The equivalent numbers for private comprehensive colleges and universities were $708,237 and $1,725,940. Figures of this type are readily available from a variety of published sources. Your university should decide which percentile it cares to reach for your official classification.

The total amount of money spent on the library is only a gross measuring tool. The total dollars spent on library services divided by the number of full-time equivalent (FTE) students is a better figure to use to compare one school to another. A school of 3,000 students that spends $300 per FTE student has a much more well-funded library proportionately than a school of 10,000 students that spends $100 per student, even though the 10,000 student university has a larger total budget. In the fall of 1988, $297 in library expenditures per FTE student was needed to reach the fiftieth percentile for public doctoral-granting universities, and $592 was required to reach the ninetieth percentile. The equivalent numbers for private comprehensive colleges and universities were $216 and $414. Any four-year institution that spends less than $100 on library services per FTE student should close its doors.

The library’s budget is commonly divided into three major areas. Fifty-five percent of the budget is usually allocated to staff salaries. Materials (books, periodicals, media, etc.) usually take up another 35 percent. The final 10 percent is usually devoted to supplies and equipment. These are, of course, general guidelines. In order to reach the fiftieth percentile in the fall of 1988, a public doctoral-granting institution must have spent 50 percent of its library’s total operating budget on salaries. For private comprehensive universities, the figure was 53 percent. Individual libraries must make adjustments according to their unique situation. For example, if a library has to pay for utilities out of its budget, a shift of the above percentages may be required.

Faculty may believe that reducing the library staff would result in a proportional increase in the book budget, but this perception doesn’t take into account the problems insufficient library staff can produce. A lack of staff may result in longer waits for purchases of new books, the growth of a cataloging backlog, delays in ordering and receiving interlibrary loans, delays in placing items on reserve, and less help for students and faculty at the reference desk.

The library’s materials budget (books, periodicals, media) should be allocated to the academic departments according to a published, verifiable, and logical formula. Some possible allocation factors in the formula may include:

  1. The numbers of majors and levels of degrees in each department. Departments that have masters and doctoral programs should be weighted accordingly.
  2. The number of student semester hours in each department.
  3. The number of full-time equivalent faculty in each department.
  4. The number of books published in the field.
  5. The average price of books in the field.
  6. The number of books circulated to students and faculty in the department.

The loudest and most politically influential department should not receive the most money.

Some libraries spend a lot of money on rare books. It is, after all, more fun to buy a rare book than the latest Prentice-Hall accounting text. Faculty have the right to expect that normal book and periodical purchases are not sacrificed to the glory of the rare book and manuscript collection. The dollars spent on rare materials should be a justified line item like any other.

Faculty members have a right to know how the library is spending money and should be uneasy if the response to questions about your departmental materials budget is, “Don’t worry. Send in your requests and we’ll take care of you.” Equally unsatisfactory is this response: “Please don’t send book orders; we don’t have any money.” Someone on the library staff must be responsible for answering hard budget questions with precise answers.

If librarians will not give appropriate answers, faculty should contact the student-faculty library committee, which should act as the oversight committee for the library, or the faculty senate committee charged with the same task.


Have you ever ordered a book for the library and checked back six months later only to discover that the book still hadn’t arrived? Why does it take so long for the library to buy a book? Often the problem is with the publishers; libraries have little control over how long book vendors and publishers take to supply books. Many books are announced long before they are actually printed; publishers use new book announcements as “market research.” If not enough orders are received, some publishers cancel publication.

In addition, an order might also be delayed because of the timing of your request. Most libraries allocate their materials budget according to department or discipline. If an order for a book is placed at the end of the fiscal year, it is possible that your department’s book budget has been expended. The order may then be held until the start of the new fiscal year.

Setting these two factors aside, faculty should expect that their book requests be ordered in less than ten working days. Since libraries do not wish to unintentionally duplicate books they already have, a rather complex and time-consuming checking procedure must be followed before each book is ordered. The larger the library, the more complex the procedure. When a book is received by the library, it should be ready for use in an average of twenty working days. Faculty should be notified individually when their book orders have been received in the library and are ready for use. Bibliographies of new books in various subject areas should be regularly circulated to faculty.

Of course, once books are acquired, they should be accessible and maintained in good order. Unfortunately, especially in the middle of a semester, you will sometimes find that the shelves are a mess and books that are supposed to be on the shelf are not. Part of the problem is that reshelving books is incredibly boring. Whether reshelving is done by full-time or work-study employees, it is difficult to achieve over 90 percent accuracy of books replaced correctly on the shelves. After the books are reshelved, library employees are employed to “read” shelves. Reading shelves consists of looking at the spine labels one after another to see whether the books are in exact order. Reshelving and reading shelves must be done constantly. In most libraries, students are dispatched to the stacks with trucks of books after a brief training session, with only the good wishes of their supervisors. Faculty have the right to expect the shelves to be in good order, but the more the library is used, the less likely that the books will ever be in order.

If a university reduces the number of work-study aides, the regular library staff can rarely make up for the lost labor-intensive reshelving duties. A messy library often goes hand-in-hand with budgetary problems. But the library should still be able to declare the number of working days required to return materials to the shelves. A period of two to five working days seems appropriate except during rush times at the end of the semester. Books in the process of reshelving should be available for perusal.


Faculty members know that the library can never have too many periodicals. Why is it, then, that librarians keep trying to cancel subscriptions? This has mostly to do with the recent dizzying upward price spiral. Between 1986 and 1990, periodical prices increased at a rate more than double the inflation rate. Periodical subscriptions for 1991 alone increased 11.7 percent in price over the previous year. These figures are for periodicals published in the United States; foreign periodicals have undergone even greater price increases. In a recessionary time, when many universities are cutting back, few libraries can hope to receive materials budgets that even meet the inflation rate, much less the rate at which periodicals have gone up in price.

Nevertheless, faculty have the right to expect their library’s periodical collection to be a realistic reflection of the current needs of their institution. Periodical subscriptions should not be cancelled just because they are expensive, nor should they be continued just because the library has always received them. Majors are dropped, schools are closed, and emphases changed, for example. There are legitimate causes for cancelling or adding new subscriptions.

You can tell if your university is spending enough on periodicals by comparing the size of your periodical collection and periodicals material budget with several peer schools. This data is available in the American Library Directory, which can be found in all academic libraries. Another way is to use the following breakdown. For public doctoral institutions, at the fiftieth percentile, 24 percent of the total library budget is spent on periodicals and only 11 percent for books. At private comprehensive institutions, the figures are more evenly divided; 15 percent is spent on books and an identical 15 percent on periodicals.


In the past decade, computers have vastly improved the way patrons find information in the library. You have a right to expect that your library be committed to automation. Every college or university should have an on-line public access catalog (an automated card catalog) available to patrons in the library and from their homes, offices, and dormitories via dial-up and the campus network. Every book doubles its usefulness with an on-line catalog (250,000 volumes can have the impact of 500,000 volumes). The traditional card catalog consisted of three indexes—author, title, and subject. The automated catalog allows access to the collection in ways that were impossible with the card catalog. Typically, the on-line catalog offers 1) author indexes, with constantly current cross references, 2) an alphabetic title index, 3) a title keyword index, 4) a subject index, 5) a subject keyword index, and 6) a call number index that mimics the order of the books on the shelves. If your on-line catalog does not allow you to search “bell tolls” to retrieve For Whom the Bell Tolls or to search “Afro-Americans” to retrieve “Authors, Afro-American,” it just does not meet modern standards. Any college or university that does not have an on-line catalog is stuck in the backwater. The card catalog is a relic. Academic libraries without an on-line catalog are minimizing access to their collection. The watchwords for the nineties are “minimize holdings—maximize access.”

Any library that doesn’t also offer access to a wide range of on-line database search services is cheating faculty out of an important research tool. In fact, this is one area in which small colleges can match large universities. Most search services offer contracts that don’t require large sign-up fees. Libraries pay for only what they use. The only pieces of equipment a library needs to offer on-line searching are a microcomputer and a modem. A small college library can and should have access to most of the on-line databases to which a big research library has access.

Faculty have the right to expect on-line database searches to be available even if they do not have their own grant funds. Students should receive reduced rates for on-line services. A librarian who tells you that on-line searching has been eliminated due to budget problems might as well be telling you that the library is no longer buying any books. On-line database searches are now a normal research tool. (Unfortunately, many libraries have never been able to accept that on-line searches take the place of books and must be paid for like books.) If faculty members aren’t charged for checking out books, they shouldn’t be charged for on-line searches.

Interlibrary Loan

Interlibrary loan is important to researchers. This is especially true in smaller colleges. All libraries should have access to one of the automated interlibrary loan systems and should be active interlibrary loan users. Faculty should expect to be told how long the average interlibrary loan will take to arrive and what their library’s policy is for charges.

However, you cannot expect to be told exactly how long it will take for any given interlibrary loan to arrive, the specific charges in advance, or the lending library’s interlibrary loan policy. By its very nature, an interlibrary loan is borrowed from another library. The interlibrary loan librarian cannot force another library, which may be located in another state or even in another country, to loan or renew a book, to photocopy a journal article, or to rush a request. Once your library sends out an interlibrary loan request, it is at the mercy of the other libraries. You can expect that nine out of every ten interlibrary loan requests you submit will be filled, unless your materials are esoteric or in fairly obscure foreign language journals.


There are few things that cause as much friction between librarians and faculty as placing items on reserve. Why does it take so long to place a book on reserve? Primarily because everyone waits until the first few days of the semester. But faculty do have the right to expect that materials will be placed on reserve promptly. Two working days is probably an appropriate time span for books to be placed on reserve except at the beginning of a semester, when five working days may be required. Faculty should be aware that placing a book or periodical article on reserve is a labor-intensive activity. They should be sensitive to the library’s work-study labor problems. Work-study labor shortages are most intense at the beginning and the end of each semester, when labor is most needed. Faculty should never announce reserve readings to their classes and then request the library to put them on reserve because students are quick to check out materials before they are placed on reserve. In addition, faculty should expect accurate records of the use of their reserve materials.

Reserve is designed for heavily used books. Placing a book on reserve essentially deprives other students of its use. It is not unusual for a faculty member to place fifty titles on reserve for one course. That would be inappropriate if, as is often the case, only one or two will be used in the course of the semester. The library has a right to limit the number of reserve materials for faculty who have a history of placing materials that are little used on reserve.


All academic librarians know that they could run a perfect library if the students and faculty would quit coming in and messing up the place. However, the library exists to serve its patrons. Although the vast majority of librarians are anxious to assist both faculty and students, the library, like any bureaucracy, is prone to make decisions for the benefit of the bureaucracy instead of the patrons. Faculty need to know what their library rights are and to demand that the library respect them. The library staff would rather work with faculty in a partnership to provide the best possible service to their academic community and to the individual patrons. If faculty have a better understanding of the operation of the library and not just the mechanics of acquiring research materials, then they will have more reasonable expectations of what the library can and cannot do for them and their students.

Leslie R. Morris is Director of Libraries, Niagara University; Carol M. Kazmierczak is an assistant professor of history at the University of Detroit Mercy; and David Schoen is an assistant librarian at the Niagara University Library.