Sara Mandell spends hundreds of dollars a year subscribing to academic journals that the University of South Florida's (USF) library cannot afford to carry. And that doesn't include what she spends on books. So Mandell, an assistant professor of the classics at USF, wasn't surprised by a list of comparable universities that ranked USF at the bottom in the number of journals and other research materials available to faculty.
"Librarians have worked very hard to help the faculty," said Mandell, chairwoman of USF's Library Council. "But very often, the materials for faculty research simply aren't there."
For USF, which has been challenged by President Frank Borkowski to become one of the top 25 public universities by the end of the decade, the breadth and quality of its library is a critical problem.
Libraries serve as more than an educational tool for students. They also are an important consideration for recruiting new professors and for providing the resources they need to stay current in their fields and pursue significant research.
University administrators have greeted the list that puts their institution at the bottom with a mixture of rueful acknowledgment and embarrassed denial.
Some of the other schools on the list, which began circulating last month among professors and deans, are older and wealthier than USF, which makes the comparisons unfair, media relations director Dan Casseday said.
The Legislature, others pointed out, in recent years has answered requests from university leaders statewide to put more money into their libraries by using proceeds from the state lottery.
That money isn't available this year.
Furthermore, two years of lottery windfalls were not enough to reverse a more longstanding deficiency, which is measured by national Association of Research Library statistics. USF, according to those statistics, lags behind most other major universities in the number of books and academic journals available to students and faculty.
"There's a correlation between the quality of a library and the intellectual vigor and scholarly productivity of a university," said acting USF library director Samuel Fustukjian. "As I've said before, show me a good library, and I'll show you a good university."
Charles Arnade, a veteran USF professor of international studies who has been involved in so-far fruitless efforts to win USF a chapter of Phi Beta Kappa, said he was shocked when he saw the library statistics, which show USF subscribed to only four journals per faculty member in 1989.
Such institutions as the University of South Carolina, the State University of New York at Buffalo or the University of California at San Diego subscribe to three, four, or eight times as many, according to figures gathered by USF librarians.
More recent figures have since been released, increasing USF's periodicals-per-faculty figure to six. But that is still at the bottom of the list.
And USF, with 58 books per student, also ranked last in that category. Fustukjian said the other universities came from a standard list of "peer institutions" used in previous USF surveys.
"These figures tend to be very discouraging," Arnade said. "I know we are not a great university, but at least I thought the library was coming along. . . . I couldn't believe it when I saw these statistics, how bad they were."
State University System administrators say it would be false to portray the USF library as "grossly inadequate."
"They need more resources to be better, but it's not impossible to do your work," said Patrick Riordan, a university system spokesman in Tallahassee. "If you're a student, your needs are pretty well met. If you're a researcher, that's where the pinch comes. If you don't have the journals handy, you've got a problem."
You can borrow journals and books from other libraries, Riordan said, "but it may slow you down. If you're thinking creatively, you need to have the materials around you to stimulate your thoughts, just like you need people around you to stimulate you."
One reason USF's library rates poorly is that state financing formulas have not taken adequate account of the duplications required by branch campus libraries, of which USF has more than any other university in the state, or the immense costs of starting a library from scratch.
Some years back, said Ann Prentice, USF's associate vice president for information resources, Florida adopted a financing formula that was designed more for maintaining existing libraries. As a result, university libraries get money based largely on the number of books they already have, instead of how many they might need. USF and other younger state universities inevitably come up short.
Prentice said legislators recognized this when they skewed the recent lottery money disbursements to favor the younger universities. Unfortunately, because that money was not an assured source of year-by-year financing, USF was reluctant to spend much of it on its biggest shortcoming, journals, which become a continuing expense.
Prentice and Fustukjian do give credit to Borkowski and USF Provost Gerry Meisels for making the library a priority. During a recent round of painful midyear budget cuts, Meisels saw to it that USF's libraries lost less than any other library in the state system, they said.
For their part, Prentice and Fustukjian are eager to find ways of using technology to stretch their limited resources.
Fustukjian, for example, has installed a network of super-fax machines so that borrowers on one campus can get journal articles from another campus within 24 hours, or two hours in an emergency. Many duplicate journals will be eliminated. He's also working with librarians in Florida and elsewhere to build other resource-sharing networks.
Prentice said computerized databases and fax machines may help, but they cannot be a substitute for building the collections the university needs. Many books and journals are used often enough that it is more practical to have them in house, she said.
With limited new money in sight, how can USF expect to build a legitimate research library?
"My quick answer," Prentice said, "is that you keep working at it. You're very careful about what you select, so that you have a strong collection. There are some very good research libraries near the bottom of that list."
"USF," she added, "reminds me of my sons when they were teen-agers. Their jeans never fit, and they were always hungry. They were always trying to do more than I could afford to let them do. There's a lot of excitement and a lot of energy when you're around somebody at that stage of life. But it sure is hard to feed the monster."
How USF's library compares
Thanks to the Florida Lottery, the University of South Florida libraries got substantially more money for books, journals and computer services during the past two years. But lottery proceeds have dwindled, and two years wasn't enough to reverse years of deficiencies. USF's library still lags behind those at most other research universities.
1988-89 1989-90 1990-91
Materials budget $2.9-million $5.0-million $4.2-million
Total volumes 1,246,567 1,222,055 n/a
Total periodicals 5,308 8,365 n/a
Books Current journals
USF 1,222,055 8,365
ARL low 1,220,897 10,689
ARL median 2,227,301 21,187
U. of Florida 2,892,301 27,999
Florida State 1,829,826 18,843
Association of Research Libraries; USF is not a member.
Source: USF Library, ARL annual report.