The strange case of academic libraries and e-books nobody reads
January 7, 2010 | 4:11 am
Dan D’Agostino, our newest contributor, is collection development librarian at a large research library. He has a particular interest in how new technology is impacting libraries. Although not a techie, he’s the happy owner of a Sony PRS-505 that he’s especially grateful for on crowded commutes. Welcome, Dan! – D.R.
Over the past several years, university libraries have collectively built very large and very expensive collections of e-books that nobody reads. These collections, often including the very best and highest demand academic titles, not only remain unread but may in format already be obsolete. They may never be read.
Instead of focusing on books downloadable to e-readers or smart phones, academic libraries have created enormous databases of e-books that students and faculty members can be read only on computer screens. The result, as shown by studies like the JISC national ebooks observatory project, is that these collections are used almost exclusively for searching for information—scanning rather than reading.
With a vigorous, searchable Google Books on the horizon, could academic libraries suddenly find themselves and their e-book collections completely bypassed by their students and faculty? The New Year finds both academic libraries and the big commercial publishers that serve the academic community in a state of paralysis, on the one hand knowing that their onscreen e-books are not reaching potential readers and on the other unable to embrace the exploding popularity of e-readers and smart phones as platforms for their content.
How did it come to this? In order to explain it’s first necessary to understand that the world of academic publishing and academic libraries, probably the single biggest sector of the current e-book market, is a strange parallel universe in relation to the rest of the e-book world. And in this strange universe, two fundamental laws currently govern all activities.
The First Law of the Scholarly Publishing Universe
The first law governing the scholarly publishing universe is that scholarly publishers are monopolies. If you’re only familiar with trade publishing this may seem counterintuitive. After all the trade publishing industry is full of publishers competing with one another for the consumer’s limited funds. But in the scholarly publishing universe publishers don’t necessarily provide books or journals that compete with those of other publishers.
Instead, they often feed the university the unique information it must have to stay on the cutting edge of research. For example, not all journals are equal. In order to support research at their universities, academic libraries must subscribe to certain high-status journals. Publishers, knowing that this makes them de facto monopolies are able to inflate the subscription prices for these key journals to astronomical levels (the phenomenon often referred to as the Serials Crisis.
The Second Law of the Scholarly Publishing Universe
The second law of the scholarly publishing universe might be called “The Library Director’s Law of Irresistible Attraction.” That law goes something like this: digital versions of high status journals are irresistibly attractive to library directors. These directors know that making them available to their students and faculty keeps everyone happy with the library, in turn securing both the library’s budget and the director’s future.
The two laws working together have meant that the big commercial scholarly publishers like Reed Elsevier and Springer Verlag have been in the unique position of forcing libraries to subscribe to packages containing all their e-journals. In other words, we’ll sell you the few you really need, but only if you take the thousands we publish that you don’t need. Since library directors had to have those few key journals, they agreed to take the whole deal.
Ebooks and the Digital Industrial Complex
Thus a symbiotic relationship was created between academic libraries and the big publishers, what I like to call the Digital Industrial Complex. Given their constant state of insecurity, libraries began buying as many digital resources as possible, regardless of quality or demand (and as we’ll see with e-books, format).
For their part, publishers were only too willing to provide new digital products for academic libraries to buy, again, without any understanding of the actual demand for them (and in a sense, they didn’t need to know whether or not students and faculty wanted these products since they knew that libraries would buy them anyway). And so, having secured, apparently in perpetuity, subscriptions to their entire ejournal lists from academic libraries, publishers began to work on the next frontier, e-books.
A few years ago publishers began offering packages of e-books to academic libraries. Since logic dictated that any library director worth his or her salt must be able to show their university presidents that they already possessed large collections of the Next Big Digital Thing, they were quite happy to buy these ebooks in large packages (those who hesitated risked “luddite status” and perhaps their jobs). Again, not buying the individual titles the university would actually need, but buying everything the publisher offered.
The publishers were offering e-books in the state of the art formats of the day, HTML and PDF. Academic libraries also began investing in very expensive platforms, like ebrary, for mounting these e-books. Publishers, academic libraries, and even the vendors of these platforms were all counting on one thing, that students and faculty would want to read e-books on computer screens—and even if they didn’t, well, that was the only technology available, so readers would simply have to adapt. But then readers had a choice.
Ereaders and Mobile Devices
Just as studies were beginning to show that readers will not read extended pieces of text on computer screens and would use these e-book collections simply for searching, not reading, the Kindle and the iPhone arrived. These devices have shown that dedicated e-readers and smart phones are e-book platforms par excellence; they make e-books work. But unfortunately for academic libraries they don’t work with the huge e-book collections they’ve amassed in HTML and PDF (at least not very well).
The result being that as the ownership of e-readers and mobiles begins to increase across campuses, the library’s e-book collection is in danger of becoming a very expensive white elephant, underused at best and perhaps already obsolete. For their part publishers are not rushing forward to convert these e-books to ePub so that they can be read on e-readers.
As one rep for a major publisher told me in December, their company is split internally over the risks involved in allowing their content to be easily read on e-readers. And so for the time being they have no plans to either retro-convert the ebook collections already held by libraries to Epub, or to start providing Epub for new titles.
In the end though, there may be a couple of ways to bring these ebooks into the 21st century and make them as popular on universities as ejournals have been. And one solution, in an acronym, is DRM…
To be continued…