Universities cannot afford to buy the books they need because they spend so much money on subscribing to research journals, most of which they cannot afford to subscribe to either.
Books are an insoluble problem, because their authors, along with their publishers, understandably wish to be paid for them. But the papers in research journals are give-aways. Their authors don't seek or make a penny from them. So why do their universities (who pay their salaries to perform and publish their research) have to pay to get them back again? Because publishing in paper costs money, and because quality control costs money: The papers submitted to journals must first undergo "peer review," sometimes several rounds of it, before they are ready to be accepted, edited and then certified as published articles.
But the peers who referee the papers, do it for free too. So that does not cost money. It is only the administration of the refereeing, plus the editing, that costs some money; and of course printing and distribution in paper.
A way is at hand now to free this give-away literature at last. Recently in Santa Fe the "Open Archives" Initiative http://www.openarchives.org/ was formed so as to agree on a way for universities to archive all their research papers publicly in "interoperable" online archives on the World Wide Web. All archives complying with the Santa Fe Convention can then be drawn together into a global "virtual library" that will contain the contents of all existing research journals, free for all.
The key to this initiative is self-archiving: Authors will be able to self-archive all their give-away papers in their own university open archives -- both the pre-refereeing draft and the final, accepted refereed draft -- and those archives will all be integrated seamlessly into a global virtual archive http://opcit.eprints.org/
What will become of the publisher's version? As long as there is a demand for the paper version, that can continue to be sold; and if the publisher produces an enhanced online version that people are willing to pay for, that can be sold too. But the author's give-away version will be available free in the open archives too, and it is very likely that once users come to rely on that, as over 50,000 physicists daily have already come to rely on the 130,000 papers self-archived so far in the Los Alamos Archive, journal subscriptions will begin to feel growing cancellation pressure. As universities cancel their subscriptions, they can redirect about 80% of that saved money toward buying the books they need; 20% can be reserved for the day when journal publishers have phased out paper and all its associated costs, and are no longer providing a product (the paper), but are only performing a service (quality control and certification). That annual 20% will be more than enough to pay for that service for each university's own authors' annual research papers.
Only three things could stop the freeing of the research journal literature. One is if publishers try (and succeed) to prevent their authors from self-archiving by forcing them to sign copyright transfer agreements that explicitly forbid it. My guess is that the this would be so transparently in conflict with the best interests of research, researchers, universities, and the society that benefits from the fruits of the research, that it will not even be attempted. Indeed, the American Physical Society, the publisher of the highest impact journals in physics, have already written the right to self-archive into their copyright agreements in the face of the colossal success of the Los Alamos Archive.
The second possible obstacle is that universities fail to provide the means for their authors to self-archive. At Southampton we will by May make available (for free of course) Santa Fe compliant software that will make it possible to create open archives at any university immediately http://eprints.org/. If the enhanced impact that this will give their research and researchers is not enough incentive to ensure that universities will create open archives, then their journal budget crises surely will be.
The last obstacle is authors themselves: Once the copyright problem is eliminated and the archives are ready to receive all their papers, will authors take the trouble to do it? I think so, and let me count the reasons: (1) The self-archiving will be made so easy that the effort will be virtually zero; (2) given a tiny budget, even that minimal effort could be made by proxy by computer-savvy students for professors who are too busy or too old to learn new tricks; (3) 130,000 physicists are already doing it, and their numbers are growing.
In principle, the journal literature could be freed before the end of 2001. If it is not, it will not be for lack of having led the horses to the water. http://www.dlib.org/dlib/december99/12harnad.htm