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A textbook case of crisis

Nick Holdsworth finds out why university libraries are cutting back
Spending by university libraries on books has nearly halved over the past 10 years, creating a pervasive sense of crisis, according to a report by the Council of Academic and Professional Publishers.

The figures show that there is an alarming funding gap between the "new" and "old" universities. The average annual spend on students at new universities is £28, compared with £45 for those at traditional, older institutions - meaning that unless significant top-up funding is given to the new universities libraries, "a two-tier education system will continue to exist", the report says.

John Davies, director of Capp, fears that the chronic underfunding of libraries will erode the quality of education available to students and damage Britain's worldwide reputation for academic textbooks.

Mr Davies says: "The problem is most acute in the new universities ... some of them don't seem able to provide even an adequate collection of the basic books and journals."

The Higher Education Funding Council should identify a method of ensuring that reasonable provision is made for libraries, such as earmarking funds for books, Mr Davies says, adding that if purchases of textbooks fall further, it will become uneconomicalfor publishers to produce them.

But while university librarians agree there is a continuing crisis, they say the Capp report disguises a much wider crisis - one of function and purpose in a world of harsh financial realities, in which publishers' inflationary price increases are part of the problem.

Pat Noon, chief librarian at Coventry University - an inner city former polytechnic says the publishers are crying wolf. "I am very sceptical about their motives. They are not really interested in higher education, they're interested in selling more books. That's fine, but don't dress it up as concern for higher education."

In the past five years, book prices have increased by nearly 40 per cent, with an annual rate of between 3 and 5 per cent, according to the Library and Information Statistical Unit, based at Loughborough University. But Mr Noon says that the price of periodicals jumped by 15 per cent with rises of 66 per cent or 78 per cent not unheard of for scientific or technical journals.

Coventry, which last year spent just over £25 on books for each of its 15,000 students, has a budget of £2 million - around 3.5 per cent of the university's total expenditure. But Mr Noon needs more staff: library use by students has increased by 50 per cent over the past five years while staffing levels have remained almost static. "It's not a book-funding crisis, it's a crisis in higher education funding ... with [academic] publishers you have a group sucking the sector dry and then asking why there isn't more blood for them to suck."

For students, the crisis is evident in the pressures they find themselves under to find scarce core textbooks for essays or reports when many - especially in the new universities - can barely afford to buy their own. Theft and vandalism - razor-blading essential pages out of books - are not major problems, but often occur as project deadlines loom. Librarians and student union officers don't condone the practice, but understand the financial, social and academic pressures under which many students live.

Last year, the Committee of Vice Chancellors and Principals spent £41 on books per student at Warwick University - one of the newer traditional universities - compared with £47 at Birmingham and £48 at Leeds.

Dave Ryan, general secretary of the student union, said: "Everything about the university since it opened has been related to great progress and expenditure, yet the library is the one area where we've slipped behind the competition."

Dr John Henshall, Warwick's chief librarian, believes he is relatively fortunate: a recent £5.6 million library extension, housing the British Petroleum archives, has enabled him to provide an extra 400 study places in the 1,500-seat central library and a better short-term loan collection, and there are plans for more expansion. But he is still cutting back on periodicals - 300 cancelled out of 5,600 over the pastfour years, saving £75,000, with plans for another clear out soon.

For Dr Henshall, there is only one way to ensure libraries fulfill the needs of students and academics: co-operation and collaboration - concepts which many territorial academics finds very threatening.