The unacknowledged (professional) expense of books

These are just some rough thoughts…

Reading is a significant part of academic life. Staying up-to-date with debates, excavating the lineage or context for certain arguments or ideas, diving into new areas – all these things, and more, more or less require us to regularly read… journal articles, books, book reviews, and perhaps (increasingly) blogs and other online texts.

The thing is… most of those texts are free to access, for academics, through institutional access (we can login through Athens or Shibboleth). The exception (most of the time anyway) is books. While universities remain committed to stocking their libraries there are, of course, limits to what can be bought. We often want to foray into very particular areas that other colleagues or students won’t and so we cannot reasonably expect the university to pick up the tab, especially when budgets are only being reduced.

This leaves many (especially early career) academics in a quandary. Resort to the increasingly creaky inter-library loans system (and then probably have to break copyright by photocopying substantial portions of a book), or buy a book with your own money. Inter-library loans is an excellent system and I have no wish to denigrate it – it’s just sometimes you need to keep a copy of the whole book and copyright doesn’t allow for this (and photocopies can be unsatisfactory too).

Now, I know that academics are certainly not badly paid (and I do not wish to moan about that), but those of us early in our careers are not wealthy by any means. Many colleagues, I am aware, give themselves a book budget and prioritise – some simply splash out. Nevertheless, this is a professional expense – we arguably need the books to inform our research (the aspect of our jobs most highly prized by our employers and government) but we must cover it out of our ordinary remuneration. This may well be the case for other professions too(?)

Until I had a family I did not think about this. I didn’t buy every book I fancied but there were book purchases most months. Now, with a tighter belt, there isn’t the room for this in my family’s budget. I was lucky to receive a small start-up pot when appointed to my post and I have used a little bit of that to pay for some essential books (I don’t think that’s what it was for!). I have also made use of the SCONUL system to join other universities’ libraries to broaden the range of books to which I have access.

Nevertheless, and I really do not wish to whinge, but the fact remains that academic books can be really expensive (e.g. Routledge and Ashgate routinely publish hardback-only editions and they cost £60+ per book) and we have to meet that expense ourselves.

I’d be interested in what others think…

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