Seeing Dollar Signs

One of the most challenging things that many librarians face is shrinking budgets, or perhaps budgets that have not increased with the pace of inflation. Couple that with student and faculty demand for more and better resources, and your budget will have you seeing red. This can be very difficult to deal with, as often our patrons have no idea how much things cost. Many patrons see an online book, database, or subscription site, and just because it happens to be on the web, they have a tendency to think it is free (or of a very low price).

I have found a way which I think effectively demonstrates the cost of web-based resources. Each quarter I have the opportunity to meet with several sections of a business communication class. The students are almost all freshman business majors. This is usually the first time that I meet with them, but I often see them in library instruction sessions during future business courses. For their research project, the business communication students have to research how to do business in another country. Each group of students is assigned a different country, and sometimes the country can be an easy one like China, others might get Sao Tome and Principe. In their papers and presentations, they have to cover their country’s economy, industry, culture, etiquette, interpersonal relations, etc. The really cool thing about this project is that most of the instructors require 7-15 resources for the bibliographies, and they have to be of various formats. This ensures that the students use everything from The Statesman’s Yearbook to the CIA World Factbook.

While most of my 50 minute instruction session covers the best print and electronic resources for the project, I do take the liberty of jumping up on a soapbox for a minute or two. I show the students a particular online resource that we used to purchase annually in print. I show them the content on the online resource and tell them what they can find there. It really is a perfect resource for this particular project. Then, I show them the print version of the same resource. I tell them that the print version, which was four volumes, costs about $130 dollars. Not a bad price at around $32.50 per volume. I open a volume of the print resource and show them that it contains the same exact information (and even looks exactly the same) as the online version. At this point they usually don’t seem very amused, because they have no idea where I’m going with my little lecture. I then wake them up by telling them that the online version of the resource, which looks the same and contains the same info as the print, costs the library over two grand a year. And the library does not even own the information. The book, we own, but the online version, we’re renting. And yes, we’ll have to pay a little more next year, because this resource is not in a rent controlled neighborhood.

Their faces usually tell me what they’re thinking. Say what? What you talking about, Chad? Why would you pay that much? Well I tell them that it might sound expensive, but because the resource is now web-based, it can be used by more people simultaneously. And boy does it ever get used, so our cost per use is pretty low. I can point around the instruction lab and show them that all 22 workstations are currently using the same resource, something that would be impossible with a book. I also tell them that the vendor of the resource understands this, and that’s why they think they can get away with packaging the content in a web-format and marking it up 2000 percent. In this case, we bit the bullet and bought it, and the vendor hooked another subscriber.

So what’s the lesson here? I tell the students that just because something is on the web, it does not necessarily mean it’s free. And just because a print resource is now available via the web, it ain’t necessarily going to be cheaper. Hopefully through this lesson some students will understand how much money the library spends to support their academic studies. And hopefully they’ll also understand that databases and electronic encyclopedias don’t grow on trees.