About 1,500 academics, students and researchers - including a former US diplomat - have signed an online petition for more funds for the University of Hong Kong library, which they say is "going downhill very fast".
Official funding for the internationally known library has dropped 25 per cent in the past decade and students are losing out, the petitioners say.
The university acknowledges that funding is tight, but says collaboration with "a greater network of libraries" across the city is helping to keep essential material available.
Petition originator Dr Priscilla Roberts said yesterday that the university lacked online resources, book collections, microfilm and journals.
"The library has been No 1 in Asia but the way it is going now, it is going downhill very fast," said Roberts, associate professor of history at the university.
"The funding is now at three-quarters of where it was 10 or 12 years ago," she said.
"There is far more online than there was 10 years ago, but a very good deal of that is not open access. These databases and online journals are businesses, they are not available for free."
Petitioners say they are alarmed that the university may be throwing away its reputation as a prestigious centre of learning and its place among the top few universities in Asia.
The petition states that despite major growth in the number of students this academic year with the transition to the new 3-3-4 education system, the library has been steadily starved of funding.
In 2002-03, it had a library resources fund of HK$75.9 million. If increased every year by 5 per cent to allow for inflation, the petition argues, this should now be HK$123.6 million. The library resources fund now stands at just HK$91 million.
The reduction in funds available for resources has been mirrored by an 18.5 per cent cut in library staff from 242 in 2002-03 to 197 in 2011-12.
University librarian Peter Sidorko said that until now, the increasing shortfall had been covered by money from interest earned on endowment funds and self-funded student programmes.
But that money would not last any longer, Sidorko said, and a crunch time had now been reached where books and other resources could not be bought for faculty courses.
Renowned Norwegian historian Arne Westad, co-director of the London School of Economics' IDEAS research centre, said in his petition submission that the HKU library was one of the world's great libraries, not least for Chinese materials.
"Its current funding level seems to be well below that of other major libraries worldwide and needs to be improved soon if the collections shall not suffer in the long run," Westad wrote.
Others who signed the petition included Lynn White, Princeton University's professor emeritus of Chinese politics, and prizewinning historian Frank Dikotter.
Dr Paul Smethurst of HKU's School of English said he was "very surprised recently to discover that many of the books I need for research and teaching are to be found in other libraries in Hong Kong".
"The library used to have a good collection of works on travel writing, but alas no more," he added.
Others who showed their support included Julia Chang Bloch, the first Asian-American appointed a US ambassador who is now president of the US-China Education Trust, together with a former HKU librarian and a former vice-chancellor.
Professor Roland Chin, the university's deputy vice-chancellor and provost, said that with the new four-year curriculum and a double cohort of students this year, the university faced competing demands on resources.
"While we recognise the importance of maintaining a balance between traditional material such as manuscripts and online material such as electronic journals, we have made sure that hard-copy manuscripts are available through our libraries' proactive inter-institutional collaboration," he said.
"The HKU libraries are leveraging the strength of being part of a greater network of libraries in Hong Kong. Our students and staff have access to a much greater pool of resources through our inter-library loan system."