UW Today

This is an archived article.

April 7, 2005

Faculty Senate looks at UW library challenges

Editor’s Note: This is one of a series of articles by the chairs of Faculty Senate councils and committees. Seelye Martin is chair of the Faculty Council on University Libraries.


The Faculty Council on University Libraries (FCUL) meets twice per quarter to review library policies and issues, and reports its recommendations to the Faculty Senate. Its membership consists primarily of faculty, with additional representatives from University staff, the Associated Students at the University of Washington, and the Graduate and Professional Student Senate.

The major challenges and opportunities facing the Libraries include the following:

(1) the growing commercialization of scholarly publishing and the increasing cost of journal subscriptions;

(2) the Open Access Movement and National Institutes of Health Initiative to make NIH funded material available freely to the public from PubMed Central;

(3) the transition from libraries as sources of printed matter to libraries as sources of digital material, also called the “Any Time Any Place Library.”

From triennial surveys conducted by the library since 1992, journals and especially electronic journals are the most important library resource for faculty and graduate students in many disciplines, while the importance of books has dropped in some disciplines. Over the past five years, the most significant increase in faculty and graduate student library usage has been from access to electronic journals from remote sites, especially off-campus residences, while the frequency of in-person visits has declined. Although in-person visits have declined, faculty and graduate students are using the Libraries more frequently and with greater productivity than ever. In contrast, undergraduate frequency of on-site use has remained constant.

A major difficulty that the Libraries face with the transition from paper to electronic media is its expense. This is in part due to the necessity of maintaining both paper and electronic subscriptions, and in part due to monopolistic practices in the publishing industry. There are also additional difficulties and expenses regarding the availability of back issues. The largest number of and most expensive of our journal subscriptions are through Elsevier/ScienceDirect, where costs are going up at 8-10 percent per year.

Even though the cost of some subscriptions is shared with Washington State University, for many years the library has been forced for financial reasons to reduce the number of subscriptions. Cancellation removes electronic access to the previously paid-for subscriptions, which in some cases, the publishers replace with a stack of unusable CDs. Given the twin pressures of increased journal usage and declining number of subscriptions, FCUL urges that faculty members not serve as editors, review for, or submit to the most expensive of the ScienceDirect journals, and to search for less expensive publication sites or journals for their work. Because of issues of journal prestige and the importance of publication to promotions, this has been a difficult request for the faculty and graduate students to comply with.

The Libraries support a number of other activities. Through the Library Liaison program, librarians play a diverse educational and research role. In the Health Sciences, the liaison staff are in some cases integrated into clinical support, where they provide clinical trial evidence to support medical decisions. In Arts and Sciences, the liaison personnel assist faculty and students with document searches, and by teaching classes on research methods. For undergraduates, the library is important for its collaborative workspaces, high-end information technology, expert reference and research assistance, and print and electronic archives. In addition, the Libraries are the largest single employer of student assistants at the University.

The Libraries also support DSpace, which is a digital library infrastructure that captures, stores, indexes, preserves and redistributes intellectual output in digital formats. DSpace allows for storage, easy access and retrieval of digital scholarship, such as works of art, theses, output from numerical models, or experimental data or imagery. DSpace is also available as a site for publication of electronic journals.

Because of the fundamental importance of scholarly communication to the University community, the cost pressures on journal subscriptions, the reluctance of faculty to publish in less expensive and possibly less prestigious journals, and the importance of publications to promotions and tenure, in the coming academic year, the University will be establishing a new committee on scholarly communications.

Given the importance of scholarship and publication to the graduate students and faculty, and the importance of shared governance to the functioning of the University, I encourage students, faculty and staff to become involved in faculty councils such as FCUL. Service on such councils is an educational experience, provides opportunities to learn how the University operates, and to meet colleagues from across campus. If you are interested in shaping policies related to the Libraries, I urge you to volunteer for membership in FCUL.