Ideas For The Suggestion Box

Our current challenging economic conditions have higher education institutions searching far and wide for ways to cut costs and stretch every dollar. The old “do more with less” philosophy is back with a vengeance. Lost state revenues have been absorbed by every unit at my institution, but the administration wanted to know how it could save even more budget dollars. Lo and behold we now have a web page where anyone can submit a suggestion for how the university could save money or gain efficiency. Even though no incentives were offered hundreds of ideas poured forth from the masses.

I submitted some ideas the first day the box was available. I had just come back from my morning workout at the campus gym and I was brimming with observations on how to cut waste at the fitness center. One towel to a person. That would cut laundry costs. Eliminate the piped in music. Everyone’s got earphones attached to their skulls. Shut down the television monitors in the weight room. Guys and gals pumping iron aren’t interested in what Oprah has to say. Do we really need liquid soap dispensers in the showers? Even college kids can afford bars of soap, and most of the ones I observe opt for a total body spray of AXE rather than a shower (if that sounds disgusting it smells much worse). A good start I thought, but wondered if I could come up with something a bit more profound.

It never occurred to me that I was missing something totally obvious for a librarian until I read a post written by WIRED magazine’s creative guru, Kevin Kelley at his “The Technium” blog. Kelley wrote an intriguing post about ownership vs. access – and he concludes that ownership is a concept that has run its course. Then it came to me. Why should anyone on our campus have the institution pay for a personal subscription to any print newspaper, magazine or journal if the library subscribes to an e-version of that publication? Here’s how Kelley sees it:

Suddenly ownership is not so important. Why own, when you can get the same utility from renting, leasing, licensing and sharing? But more importantly why even possess it? Why take charge of it at all if you have instant, constant, durable, full access to it?…Access is so superior to ownership, or possession, that it will drive the emerging intangible economy. The trend is clear: access trumps possession. Access is better than ownership.

It struck me that all libraries are built on the premise of giving everyone equal access to a commons of information, and that in turn can collectively save the community money. People have depended on libraries for access rather than ownership for generations. Kelley even points out that libraries share the qualities of the web and public roads in that they offer a social common good.

Here was my simple suggestion for saving institutional dollars. The university should no longer pay for a subscription for any publication to which the library already provides an electronic version. I gave two examples of how this can benefit the university. First, the obvious one – cost cutting. Consider the Chronicle of Higher Education. The Library has a site license that makes it accessible to anyone with a university network account. I imagine our various administrative and academic departments hold dozens of subscriptions to the Chronicle. If we dropped them all that would contribute to hundreds or thousands of dollars in savings. Add in the cost of any scholarly journals and you could be talking real money. And over time it would really start to add up. But could people live without their print publications? We may not have a choice.

I admit that I like to read the paper version of the Chronicle, but in the year since we added the site license I increasingly find myself saying “read that one already this week” since I’m reading more online. And I’ve never had a paper copy of Inside Higher Ed and I can’t even imagine needing it in that format. The second benefit is that eliminating all this paper makes us a greener campus. My institution has committed to achieving sustainability via green campus initiatives. I imagine any number of these paper copies end up in trash bins. Eliminating paper subscriptions eliminates paper waste. A less obvious benefit is that it capitalizes on the significant institutional investment in electronic publications…and an even less obvious benefit is that it drives more campus community members to our academic library resources. Better for us.

I finished my suggestion with the bold statement that our university president should publicly commit to sacrificing her paper subscription to the Chronicle, and indicate that others should follow her lead by using the Library’s site license to access all the electronic content. While good ideas can emerge from anywhere in the organization, bold initiatives that save dollars and help make us greener need the very obvious support of the institution’s top leaders. We the employees need to know that our leaders are making the same sacrifices they ask us to endure.

5 thoughts on “Ideas For The Suggestion Box”

  1. We just did exactly this with our copies of the Chronicle. But when you say “Add in the cost of any scholarly journals and you could be talking real money” are you talking about individual subscriptions or the library’s last print copy of a journal to which it has electronic access? Those are two very different things.

  2. I encourage you to separate out strategies that “shift cost” from those that “lower social cost.” The former may be easier to identify but one wonders whether there is only a near term gain from them. In your example, if the Chronicle gets the same number of eyeballs but with fewer subscriptions, doesn’t it have to raise the subscription price to sustain itself and, if so, where are the savings? Ditto for the example where the students bring the soap.

    What about returning to the discussion from several years back that Institutional Repositories might offer a lower cost way to scholarly publishing and aggressively trying to move Journals away from commercial publishers?

  3. Here’s a quote from Johannes Trithemius:

    “All of you know the difference between a manuscript and a printed book. The word written on parchment will last a thousand years. The printed word is on paper. How long will it last? The most you can expect a book of paper to survive is two hundred years. Yet, there are many who think they can entrust their works to paper. Only time will tell.”

    It ALL hinges on what is considered “durable,” doesn’t it?

    Nothing is ever really new.

  4. Concerning Lanny Arvan’s post: I was taught in Economics 101 that if demand drops, then prices drop, and as demand increases, the price does too. So, if the Chronicle gets fewer “eyeballs” or the number of soap bars sold goes down, the price should drop as well. In fact, this was taught as one of the basic principles of the free market.

    Of course, this has all been lost with the acceptance of supply-side economics, and especially so in academia, where today we are told that since university presses are selling far fewer scholarly books, (I have read of a 90% return rate!) the prices must go…. up! So, the presses will naturally sell even fewer books since the prices are higher and ultimately, the entire facade collapses in the midst of general incomprehension.

    But, I think even an unschooled farmer would realize that if he is looking at piles of unsold corn in his silos, maybe he should drop his asking price? Maybe he won’t become a zillionaire immediately but at least he can survive so that next year or so, he might be able to ask for more.

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