tim collinsEBSCO started out as a magazine index, but the company has continued to grow and evolve. It now represents a discovery service and e-book aggregator in addition to doing more with digital magazine content. Scholarly Kitchen has an interview with Tim Collins, EBSCO’s CEO, about what current trends he sees in the way libraries interact with digital media.

In particular, Collins has some things to say about the current Short-Term Loan (STL) purchase model for e-books. Collins says that STL had a spike in popularity around 2013, but has been trending downward since then.

The reality is that, while we understand why it seemed like an attractive model for libraries, it is not sustainable for publishers. Simply put, having a library pay 15% of the normal purchase price for a book doesn’t cover the cost of producing the book. Publishers understand this and have been forced to diminish their exposure to this model by increasing short-term loan prices and not allowing front list titles to be part of the model — or not participating at all.

Another problem with STLs is that, if libraries save money by buying them, they are rewarded by their e-book budget decreasing the next year and having fewer e-books to offer customers overall.  And while some libraries might use Demand Driven Acquisition (DDA) models, in which they buy e-books their customers specifically request, that relies on publishers continuing to make content available for DDA searching by users. Collins fears this might result in a race to the bottom as decreasing budgets mean libraries can buy fewer e-books, which in turn means publishers can’t afford to offer as many e-books.

In order to be sustainable, library e-book business models have to work for both the publishers and the libraries. Collins notes that the subject has been under discussion in library conferences and journals, but doesn’t seem to have a solution ready to hand.

Collins also discusses the importance of libraries being able to select and use the discovery services of their choice. A discovery service is basically a specialized search engine that lets library patrons search for content through all the databases and books a library offers with a single search box. Driven by the popularity of Internet search services like Google, discovery services try to bring that kind of simplicity to library catalog searches—a far cry over the old card catalog system. This is one of the services EBSCO has been working to improve.

In the academic discovery environment, there are two parts of the equation that set library resources apart from an open web search: the collection itself, and the detailed indexing applied to that collection at the article level. We realized early on that discovery could not be a watered-down search if it was going to be worthy of a true academic research experience and found on the front page of the library’s website. No matter how well open web search engines work, it is not likely they will ever go back and create high-quality subject indexing for nearly all important academic sources back dozens and dozens of years.

Sometimes it’s easy to forget just how much libraries and search engines have in common. The entire purpose of libraries is to organize information in a way that makes it easy for patrons to find what they need—whether that information consists of an interesting fiction book to read, or detailed non-fiction research material. And of course to be able to use that information, you have to be able to find it.

The question of what the best business model would be for library e-books is an interesting one as well. Publishers have certainly changed them a lot in recent years, and libraries haven’t always been pleased about it. Small wonder that services like Hoopla, offering an alternative way to check out e-books and digital media, have become popular. But while Hoopla does offer a great deal of extra content to library patrons, it’s still a collection curated by someone else—not the library itself. It remains to be seen what form library e-book acquisitions will take over the longer term.

(Found via Personanondata.)


  1. The central problem with a library’s “business model” is that libraries are NOT businesses. They are public services, supported by taxes and donations. Treating them as a cash cow for publishers has made them unsustainable. Since the libraries cannot afford ebooks under the current terms, they buy fewer, causing demand to drop. In the long run, the publisher’s actions are driving customers to subscription services like Scribd and Kindle Unlimited, which are mostly indie books. All hail the search for short-term profits!

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