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Tom Hickerson, head librarian at the University of Calgary, has watched in horror over the past two years as the falling dollar eats into his library’s purchasing power. Every one cent drop against the American dollar takes a $100,000 bite out of his acquisitions budget. (Chris Bolin For The Globe and Mail)
Tom Hickerson, head librarian at the University of Calgary, has watched in horror over the past two years as the falling dollar eats into his library’s purchasing power. Every one cent drop against the American dollar takes a $100,000 bite out of his acquisitions budget. (Chris Bolin For The Globe and Mail)

Dropping loonie squeezes library budgets as costs for materials climb Add to ...

Every morning, Tom Hickerson turns on the TV and checks for the day’s exchange rate.

He is not a trader, banker or economist. But still, what he sees will have a major impact on the day ahead of him.

As the head librarian at the University of Calgary, Mr. Hickerson has watched in horror over the past two years, as the dropping dollar eats into his library’s purchasing power. Every drop of a penny against the American dollar takes a bite of over $100,000 out of his acquisitions budget.

The fall of the loonie – from just over 94 cents in early January, 2014, to the low 70s today – has left academic and public libraries with less money to pay for the increasing number of materials they are billed for in U.S. dollars.

Public libraries have made much of their transformation into digital hubs. In addition to allowing customers to download e-books and audiobooks, some also offer music and film streaming, as well as digital subscriptions to magazines like the New Yorker.

But these services all originate with American vendors – and when the Canadian dollar drops, the libraries’ costs go up.

Vickery Bowles, city librarian for the Toronto Public Library, said her institution spent nearly $1-million on currency conversion in 2015, out of a collections budget of $18-million. In 2010, the figure was $58,000. Most of those costs were for digital content. “That’s a huge difference and takes a real bite out of our collections budget,” she said.

Ms. Bowles said physical materials such as books and DVDs still represent more than 80 per cent of library circulation, but “we are spending more and more of our money on e-books.”

To compensate, the library buys fewer copies of popular books, but that leads to longer wait times. Toronto Public Library customers placing a hold for André Alexis’s Giller Prize-winning Fifteen Dogs, for example, have about 1,000 people in line ahead of them. (The library owns 276 copies.)

Ms. Bowles said the library analyzes usage to shift dollars from less-borrowed items like paperbacks to e-books, and has found ways to fulfill holds more efficiently, “so people get them more quickly and we don’t end up having to buy as many copies.”

In Halifax, where the public library’s collections budget is $1.7-million, collections head Debbie LeBel said she is seeing “sticker shock” when it comes to databases and e-books such as John Irving’s latest, Avenue of Mysteries, which costs the library $86.

Meanwhile, the prices of printed books, which have been stable for the past couple of years, are now also on the rise. Robin Hoogwerf, general manager of Calgary-based United Library Services, which purchases and catalogues books for libraries, said prices rose an average of 8 per cent in 2015, and “we’re already seeing price increases for spring/summer titles in 2016.”

As public libraries talk about shifting resources, academic librarians speak in more apocalyptic terms.

Marc Truitt, university librarian at Mount Allison, in New Brunswick, says the “perfect storm” of a flat library budget, frozen tuition, and rising journal costs – mostly paid for in U.S. dollars – has “all but eviscerated our budget for books.”

“At some point something is going to have to give in terms of our ability to provide for our patrons,” Mr. Truitt said. “We can cut and cut and cut, but if the budget doesn’t go up, and the exchange rate doesn’t shift, and the native prices of materials keep climbing, then we’re headed for zero.”

Journals are the key driver of university library costs. The market is dominated by five publishers, and Mr. Hickerson says price increases average more than 6 per cent a year. To make matters worse, publishers – like cable companies – bundle titles so that universities may have to pay for hundreds of titles in order to get the few they really want.

Late last year, Memorial University in Newfoundland shocked faculty by cancelling subscriptions to more than 1,700 journals. (The library originally cut 4,000, but is resubscribing to many – some on terms that only allow access to articles a year after publication.)

Mr. Hickerson says 85 per cent of University of Calgary library purchases are in U.S. funds, most of that going to electronic journals. “Over a period of nine months last year, we lost $800,000 in buying power. That’s just tremendous, and it’s happened so rapidly,” leaving the library struggling to adjust. “A particularly expensive contract may not come up for renewal until 2018, so that may be the one we would choose to cancel, but we will be under pressure to look for other cancellations in the interim,” he said.

Five years ago, the library got an injection of funds intended to acquire materials for weaker parts of the collection. “We haven’t done any of that for the last three years,” Mr. Hickerson said. “Those funds have not gone to strengthen our holdings but to reduce the damage.”

To make at least some dent in the costs of journals, the Canadian Research Knowledge Network negotiates bulk licences for its 75 member universities. Since 2013, it’s also offered them a foreign exchange project, allowing them to hedge against further drops. In 2014-15, 19 universities took part, saving a total of $116,000.

“They didn’t train me in library school to be a currency speculator,” Mr. Truitt said. While he thinks initiatives like this can help, they still provide only a small amount of relief for the budget crisis. Librarians, he said, are “one big unhappy family right now.”

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