Academic Libraries, budget models, and neo-liberal market discipline

Eric Larson of U Wisconsin asks on the code4lib listserv:

Any academic libraries out there doing consulting or application development work for hire on their campuses? — not freebie work, but where actual money exchanges across campus accounting lines.

I would be curious to hear how you go about pricing out your  services, or if you have a selection process for the work you choose to perform.

My thoughts, a bit about the practicalities towards the end, but also the role of libraries, professional ethics, and what this can do to how a library works and who it serves.

It seems odd to me for the library to charge individual departments for special projects. Although I realize it can make sense and be reasonable in some cases, I think there are some dangers.

I mean, the library is already funded to provide services to the rest of the university, right? EVERYTHING we do serves other schools and departments, that’s what we do, almost all our customers are internal. Different universities have different ways of accounting for this — the individual schools or departments may already have budget line items moving cash from their budget to the libraries, or the university may just take care of it.

But either way, it’s usually flat rate, pay for the libraries budget. The Business School doesn’t get better service than the Philosophy Dept because they’ve got a bigger budget; nor are schools/departments usually ‘charged back’ because their undergrads use the reference librarians more than other depts/schools.

Likewise, some features we develop serve some department/schools more than others. If we realized there was a need to search/facet by MeSH (NLM Medical Subject) headings, and we weren’t doing that yet, but we had the capability to do it — would we only add that feature if the Medical School paid us?

I realize that all of our universities are increasingly trying to subject their components to market discipline, making everything be a fee-based transaction. I think our professional ethics should be to resist this — it’s true we can’t do everything we might want and need to prioritize — but I think our professional ethics in a university library should be against giving better service to those parts of the university which can pay more.

But, really, I just put this out as something to think about. I realize that in some cases it can make sense, and be reasonable and ethical. But I think care is warranted.

But also, don’t forget sustainable maintanance

Another thing to beware of with software development in particular — is that software going to be running on your servers, are you expected to maintain it as well? We who develop software realize that software is hardly ever “one and done”, software (like libraries, Ranganthan’s last law) is a “growing organism”, it takes constant care and feeding. Even if no features are ever added (and certainly people WILL ask for changes), it takes constant operational care just to keep the thing running, including patching dependencies for security vulnerabilities, as well as simple operational/hardware expenses, etc. If you charge per project the end, but are responsible for maintaining the software indefinitely, that doesn’t work even from a strictly budgetary perspective.

With digital collections, for instance, if possible I think it’d make a lot more sense to support as part of the libraries mission and general budget, say, an general Omeka installation that anyone can use to create their own ‘exhibition’, and/or a general Repository that anyone can use to store their digital artifacts, rather than charge individual projects per-project to “develop” (and then charge more per-year to maintain/support?). Even just on basic financial sustainability grounds.

(In some cases, academic libraries might charge out print aquisitions to certain departments, to buy books selected by that department.  But do you charge them an ongoing maintenance cost too, for the shelf space, the building that houses it, the environmental control; how about charge them every time one of their students/faculty checks out a book, for the circulation transaction costs?  Why not?  What if a department wanted to buy so many books that you had to add a wing onto your library to house them (with all the ongoing extra maintenance costs an extra wing takes!) — would you do it? Why or why not? Only if you charged them for the extra wing too?  If every year they only buy a bit of stuff, but over 12 years it adds up to a whole extra wing needed, do they get away with it, but not if they want to buy all the books at once?  While this sounds ridiculous, I think it’s actually, by analogy, a lot more like what’s going on when you charge for software development for something you will run on your servers and maintain indefinitely.)

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