In this post, I get to be both an economist and a librarian. I want to argue that recessions pose at least two kinds of problems for academic libraries, one of them quite obvious, the other one less so.

The obvious problem is that recessions bring with them reductions in income – the stuff that state legislatures and student households use to support universities, and wealth – the stuff that constitutes university endowments. Much has been written recently about the terrific endowment growth that universities experienced during fiscal year 2007. Well, the stock market has been falling quite sharply for the last several months, and I’ll bet that the number of universities whose endowments grow appreciably in the current fiscal year will be fairly small. So, the sources of the money that we spend on collections and services are likely to be under stress in the next year or so, and libraries will get to share in some of the pain that our institutions will experience. (There is a longer discussion, that I will provide at some point, about the problems that arise when institutions that collect with an eye to the needs of users over years and decades have to deal with the vagaries of budgets that bounce around from year to year. Briefly, it would be good for both us and our universities to try to smooth out the effects of the business cycle, but that’s not easy to do.)

The less obvious problem has to do with the indirect effects that a recession will have on the behavior of publishers and media companies as they continue to press Congress for protection against all and sundry, most emphatically including libraries. Bill Patry has a number of nice discussions of the remarkably disingenuous rhetorical turn undertaken by publishers, the RIAA, and other representatives of copyright holders as they cloak simple greed in the language of the moral high ground.

Claims that copyright involves human rights or is a property right are based on the theory that copyright is also a natural right — a right that exists independent of legislative enactment, even if there are legislative enactments. In the United States, copyright is not a natural right, since the Supreme Court has said so twice, first in 1834 in Wheaton v. Peters, and then in 1932 in Fox Film Corp. v. Doyal. Yet, rhetoric based on a natural rights basis for copyright are behind all the claims that those who use copyrighted works without permission are thieves or pirates. If copyright is instead a limited privilege that parcels out limited control to copyright owners, one might view issues differently. [Patry Copyright Blog, Jan. 18, 2008]

What does this have to do with recessions? Well, one of the things that happens when times are tough is that those who are having tough times seek public relief. Quite appropriately, Congress and the President are now working on developing a stimulus package to aid the economy as a whole, and the Federal Reserve has just implemented a cut in interest rates designed to forestall a recession. But individual industries will also seek specialized relief, and will attribute their problems to causes for which they have favorite cures. The favorite cure for the media companies, of course, is ever-tighter intellectual property laws, with ever-greater limitation (or at least a climate of fear) around legitimate fair uses. Just watch, if a recession unfolds, as the media go back to Congress and ask for protection against the public and the libraries, even though the causes of their current problems are changes in technology to which they have adapted badly, as well as the recession itself.