Erik Christopher follows up on “The strange case of academic libraries and e-books nobody reads”
January 29, 2010 | 8:00 am
Editor’s Note: Erik follows up on Dan D’Austino’s piece mentioned above. You can find Dan’s piece here. PB
Many of the issues and concerns that are brought up in Dan D’Augustino’s piece are very relevant. When eBooks first arrived it was like eJournals, everyone was trying to figure out what they had and the best way to use it. Dan mentions that buying eJournals was you may only need a few but you have to take the thousand others you don’t need. Many of the eBook aggregators out there don’t follow that model, that’s why they have perpetual access, subscription models and the ever-increasing patron or demand driven approach. We have to remember some key points though, eBooks for Higher Ed/Libraries are unique in their use and function then the retail or consumer market eBooks. In Higher Ed/Libraries they have different applications they are being used for. The specialized way in which the content is being used and the function they serve presents new challenges. To lump them all together as just eBooks without the separation of purpose or their specialized needs will cause nothing but confusion and misunderstanding. eBooks serve different purposes in each area and how you approach buying an eBook and using an eBook changes within that dynamic.
Dan raises some great questions, with Google Books, are libraries collections threatened? I don’t see that, first off many of these titles are ones the publishers are doing nothing with and second of all, you are very limited in what you can do with Google Books. You cannot connect to other resources, you cannot copy and paste text with a citation to follow and biggest of all, you cannot search full text, after all, these are just images of the book, not the text that you could use in another way. Google Books will make a dent, sure, it’s big enough and they have a lot of money to throw behind. However, a true die-hard researcher is not going to use Google books to search for a title when all they can do is a screen capture of it, they want the content, get in and get out and move on the next piece of information.
Dan talks about reading on your laptop versus a reader, the biggest drawback of a reader is it’s a singular device with one purpose and anyone in research will tell you they want things simple, many Universities I visit with, big research ones, want it simple, readers don’t do this. As Netbooks become more dominant and computers/laptops change, you’ll see people on those more. After all, would you rather read the book on one device and then have to pick up your cell phone or laptop and tweet about it because you love it or look up more titles or would you rather do it all on one machine? For me it’s easy, one machine, the separate eReader is another device I have to fit in my travel bag along with a charger, my laptop however is already there, along with most everyone else, it just makes sense.
In regards to the platforms that Dan mentions and says they are expensive, some can be, but we have to remember one thing, that platform is hosting the eBook, they are handling all the issues with publishers, maintaining servers and keeping things going. If a library had to do that, the cost would be high (I mean lots of zeros with that $) and they would assume all responsibility, which includes possible law suit should the university not maintain the DRM and other copyright responsibilities of the titles. You also have to employ someone to handle the maintenance, pay their benefits, have a room for the servers and keep access going 24×7, understand new license agreements with the potential 450 publishers you may work with…and we’re just getting started.
I have no stake in any aggregator, but I can tell you honestly they are not out to get you. They have real costs associated with maintaining access to the titles and assuming the liability required to attain worthy content. Dan mentions DRM, DRM is in place with the aggregators, you can print so many pages, copy so many pages and paste so many pages. However many libraries despise DRM, they want nothing to do with it. The patrons want to print more then one page at a time or a page range, or a chapter range without being cutoff. They don’t want a 20% limitation on copy and paste or have each publisher impose a different set of limitations, which is the current case. Dan mentions that DRM will make eBooks more popular in university libraries, in reality the truth is they won’t, libraries have stated very loudly that if they own the title, they want to do with it what they wish, so how that will grow popularity is confusing, by limiting something doesn’t mean it will be sought after more, it can and probably will backfire. Again to state what I said earlier, the current state of things at best is a compromise, not a great one, but one that needs to be made. Everything from Royalty agreements to copyright law and distribution of the content are areas that haven’t been able to catch up with the changing technology. Compromise is a necessity for digital content delivery to continue, there is no perfect setup but until someone becomes the expert and can develop a plan on how to make it all work compromise is a key ingredient
I’m not slamming Dan on anything he said, I think the concerns he raises and questions are valid and I’m happy to see them come up. The biggest challenge I have found from a sales stand point is that people don’t know what they don’t know. I know this sounds snobbish maybe, but what it means is that there is a lot of misinformation out there, people don’t have the information they need to make the decisions and as Dan said, sometimes they feel rushed into something because they feel they need to. We have to remember also that the environment in which eBooks are being used has changed much faster then the industry has. This is a specialized field in the realm of sales and many who have been in the field for years started in the book part of and that within itself holds unique challenges.
For the library to find someone who can answer all the technical issues on emergent technology and all of the legal ramifications of how it all works out, then hold on to them tightly. In the industry there is not an authoritative entity that can say do this or do that, everyone is trying a variety of options to see what works and then sharing with others. As technology continues to change and evolve, so will the compromises that need to be made in the industry to accommodate them. No sales rep or anyone else for that matter will have all the questions. Whether Epub becomes the standard or things change again with developments in XML and other technology, eBook tech is just changing too fast for the publishing world.
In the end eBooks will continue to grow among academic libraries. In large part, the role of the libraries will remain the same. Librarians will continue to teach patrons how to search, research and better use the library. The biggest challenge of any library is buying the right materials; this has gone on in the print area for a very long time, specifically reference. You buy a book that doesn’t circulate outside the library, hope it gets used but you never know, and that book could have cost you $500, with the eBook, at least you can run a stat on the eBook and see how it is being used if at all. eBooks will grow, libraries will continue to use them, but as everything goes, it will all evolve, they may not even be called eBooks. The best way to use eBooks and understand them is to ask questions, lots of questions and never feel like asking the same one 50x is bad, ask it until you get an answer you can understand and makes sense to you, you’ll never be faulted for that. In the end everyone needs to recognize that the technology isn’t perfect, there are limitations of what can be done given the industry and the technology itself.
Patron Driven I have mentioned before, it’s a form of procurement and collection development that many libraries are looking at and is something I can go into more in another article.