Funding boost sought for libraries’ online research

If Louisiana colleges and universities are going to produce the type of graduates needed to meet the demands of the state’s future economy, some argue it may come down to whether the state continues to slash funding for a little-known resource schools have been relying on for more than two decades.

The Louisiana Library Network provides LOUIS — the Louisiana Online University Information System.

LOUIS is a consortium of the state’s public and private colleges pooling their money together to make sure students in all corners of the state have access to the same technologies and academic databases used for research.

LOUIS is the reason why students at schools with limited resources, such as Grambling State University, have many of the same research tools as students at LSU.

State funding for LOUIS has dropped from 70 percent in the 2008-09 fiscal year to 12 percent this year.

Executive Director Sara Zimmerman said the consortium uses the power of bulk purchasing in its negotiations with private vendors to secure a lower price than schools would be able to get by negotiating individually.

The $4 million LOUIS spends annually would cost colleges more than $25 million collectively if they didn’t have the consortium to negotiate on their behalf, she said.

The consortium has saved Louisiana schools more than $222 million since it started in 1992. The partnership between the Louisiana Library Network and colleges and universities calls for member institutions to pay a portion of the LOUIS budget, with the state picking up the difference.

Budget cuts mean the campuses have to dip further into their pockets to keep LOUIS active, which diverts money away from other academic purposes.

Using LOUIS, law students can access the LexisNexis database, future engineers can use Engineering Village and environmental science students can use a service called Agricola.

LOUIS also provides automation services, meaning students can electronically search among the millions of books university libraries carry, rather than using the paper cards of old.

Just recently, the consortium rolled out a new feature described as a “one-stop discovery system” that allows students to search through dozens of databases from a single location — essentially creating a Googlelike search engine for academic research.

The new service means students don’t have to know the exact database to search through to find the information they’re looking for.

Southern University’s dean of libraries, Emma Bradford Perry, described LOUIS as the backbone of academic research in Louisiana. Southern saves roughly $780,000 annually as a member institution.

The interim dean of LSU Libraries, Elaine Smith, reports that LOUIS saves LSU $1.4 million a year.

Further cuts to LOUIS could stifle schools’ ability to produce qualified graduates in the fields that are anticipated to move the state’s economy forward, Zimmerman cautions.

It also could hurt some of the economic development gains Gov. Bobby Jindal’s team has brought to the state, including the planned IBM complex and the coastal research center both being built in downtown Baton Rouge.

“We make it possible for researchers to do their jobs,” Zimmerman said. “When the governor starts talking about new initiatives, it’s the libraries that support that. We provide the information to colleges that the students can access. It’s a phenomenal project that touches every school in the state.”

With the state’s finances looking slightly better than in years past, the Board of Regents, the state’s higher-education policy board, has doubled its request from the Legislature for LOUIS funding to $1 million for next year’s budget.

It’s unclear if that request will be honored, but it appears as if Gov. Bobby Jindal is at least open to the idea.

“We are open to working with the Board of Regents and the Legislature to include additional state funding for the Board of Regents’ budget to fund the Louisiana Library Network,” Jindal’s staff wrote in a prepared statement.

LOUIS is “probably the best example in this state of using cooperation to bring about savings,” said Sharon Mader, dean of Library Services at the University of New Orleans.

“We’d have nothing if we did not have LOUIS,” she said.