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UNC-Chapel Hill plans to cut $5 million from libraries, spurring questions about funding priorities

WUNC, file

When professor Tamlin Pavelsky was a young graduate student, he was among the last generation to Xerox research articles in the library.

Today, as a faculty member in the Department of Geological Sciences at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, he's accustomed to finding journals online at a keystroke.

"One of the great benefits in living in the age that we live in is that we have access to all of this information, just really quickly and really easily,” Pavelsky said.

He says he often looks up a detail from an online article, drops a line in a research paper or grant proposal, and moves on.

As UNC-Chapel Hill slashes its libraries' collections budget over the next two years, that ease of access will end.

UNC-Chapel Hill hasn't had a balanced budget in a decade. Add on pandemic revenue losses, and the university is now making operating cuts of 7.5% across-the-board. The university announced in January it would begin a plan to rein in its operating and personnel expenses.

The university announced last week in a campus wide email that it is cutting its libraries' budget by $5 million over the next two years in a larger effort to balance the school's overall budget. That budget cut in particular is causing some to question UNC-Chapel Hill’s strength as a research institution.

Libraries Will Make Up for Lost Subscriptions With Loans

Nerea Llamas is the Associate University Librarian for Collections Strategy and Services. She says the UNC Libraries’ collections budget, which pays for new books and journal subscriptions, is projected to drop from $15.5 million to about $13.7 million this academic year.

Then the UNC Libraries will take another $3 million cut to operating expenses the following year. If most of that comes from collections — as it did this year — the overall collections budget would shrink by nearly a third in two years.

“Even in saying that we are taking this large cut — and it is a large cut — we also have programs in place, we have services in place that will help us get researchers the content that they need,” Llamas said.

The libraries have beefed up their interlibrary loan services to get materials from other institutions, following years of smaller cuts to collections to keep up with inflation.

“At this point, we have long, long ago canceled all of the nice-to-have journals,” Llamas said. “We are now starting to cut into the core of our journal collection.”

University officials say the critical need to balance the university's budget in addition to the on-going inflation of journal subscriptions forced the decision.

"The outrageous cost of scholarly journals is a challenge for all research libraries, and Carolina is no different," UNC-Chapel Hill spokeswoman Carly Miller wrote in an email.

Llamas says with the help of interlibrary loans or by buying the articles researchers need on-demand, the service is still pretty quick.

“Sometimes articles are in hand within two to three hours,” Llamas said.

“But, you know, that's the difference between, maybe waiting a day versus waiting a second for an article,” Pavelsky said.

He says that day could make a difference when on deadline for a grant proposal. If the library drops subscriptions to journals he uses frequently, Pavelksy might pay to subscribe to them from his own salary.

When news of the cuts made the rounds on social media, commenters compared the $5 million library cuts to:

  • The university's $2.5 million settlement with the Sons of Confederate Veterans over the Silent Sam monument — which a judge overturned.
  • North Carolina's $6.5 billion state tax surplus.
  • Football coach Mack Brown's $3.5 million salary.
  • Large gains in the UNC Chapel Hill investment funds in 2020.
  • Vice chancellors' salaries.
  • The new Carolina Gaming Arena for e-sports.
  • UNC-Chapel Hill's record breaking $1 billion in federal research grants.

“If we are this major research university, one of the top 10 in federal funding, and yet we can't afford to have our faculty have access to the latest research in some of the top journals, what does that say about us?” Pavelsky asked.
“I don't mean to say that this isn't a necessary thing, given the budget realities,” Pavelsky added. “But, I think it should make all of us take a step back.”

Liz Schlemmer is WUNC's Education Reporter, covering preschool through higher education. Email:
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