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The Revolution Will Not Be Subscription-Based
October 13, 2011 - 10:15pm

Another fascinating report has just come out from Project Information Literacy, a source of many fascinating reports. This one focuses on how students use technology during the busiest time of the semester. I love what these researchers are doing—actually talking to undergraduates about how they do research (what a concept!) rather than making assumptions. Often, when I read their reports I think to myself “yes, that sounds exactly like our students; no surprises here.” But then I realize how much their findings challenge the latest library craze and am grateful to have real data to back up my impressions.

Take ebooks. Librarians currently seem to think we should be investing in massive numbers of ebooks, and the rationale often given is “students live on the Internet. If it’s not online, it doesn’t exist to them. We need to meet them where they are.” In a stronger form this is worded as “EVOLVE OR DIE!!” But if you point out that the students you talk to don’t like to read anything on the screen, you’ll probably hear “oh, we just need a better marketing campaign. They don’t know what they’re missing.”

This is fresh in my mind because I just attended an interesting day-long virtual conference on ebooks in libraries. In fact, I was a panelist for a session on marketing ebooks to students in academic libraries. Sadly, what I had to say probably wasn’t what the audience came for. Our students aren’t interested in ebooks, so we aren’t buying lots of them and thus have nothing to market. Frankly, I would much rather see libraries fund the production costs of open access monographs, the way the University of Michigan is doing with their Digital Culture imprint or what the National Academies Press has been doing for years, rather than become the open wallet used to fund another digital transition.

One indicator of how well this open-wallet-approach has worked so far is to see how much a single journal article will cost you. If you could buy journal articles the way we buy iTunes music, then we’d really have a digital revolution--but libraries would then stop spending tens of thousands of dollars for highly specialized publications that mostly go unread but are occasionally essential, and then where would we be? If the only future for scholarly monographs is for libraries to switch to electronic subscriptions and fund access to $69.00 books in large numbers, we’re funding a transition that preserves a pretty dysfunctional status quo.

There are compelling reasons to add a lot of ebooks to your library collection. You can instantly have a tens of thousands of ebooks available, but only pay for the ones your patrons actually use. That purchase isn’t cheap; one of the presenters showed that from a potential pool of over 60,000 books, their library users only opened and read substantial portions from a little over 300, which the library then purchased. Each purchased book cost a bit more than $69.00; they averaged around $75.00 per digital file, er, ebook. The library also had funded “short term loans” of several thousand ebooks. A book rental (a use of a book that was something over 5 minutes, but no more than 24 hours) cost the library on average $13.60 per use. That’s much cheaper than buying and shelving a book that might never be used, but this library spent $50,000 on access to digital books that people used for less than a day. Is this really the best we can do with our funding?

I keep thinking we’re creating a new system where books will be as scarce as ever for those who can’t pay while, for those who have money, there will be an all-you-can-eat banquet that can’t be shared with the starving. After a transition like this, will we be any better off?

I don’t know what students make of all this, but one thing that Project Information Literacy discovered in their latest study is that students are not as excited about gadgetry and electronic sources as we tend to assume. When project teams interviewed 560 undergraduates studying in libraries at ten institutions, they found students were keeping it simple. Most of them had only one or two electronic devices with them: a phone and a laptop. Most of them were focused on getting an assignment done or were studying for a class. Most of them had only a couple of webpages open in a browser, and they weren’t the same websites; they were browsing all over the place. Only a small percentage were on familiar sites like Facebook or Wikipedia. Few of the students interviewed (11%) had used a library databases in the previous hour and even fewer (9%) had used library books. Many of them were keeping an eye on text messages, email, and Facebook, but only when taking a break from their work. They weren’t multitasking in that legendary fashion we expect of this generation, nor were they enamored of trendy new digital devices. Only seven of the 560 students was using an iPad or other tablet device. Only three had a Kindle or other e-reader.

I can’t say that buying $69.00 books and putting them on shelves to gather dust is a good use of our limited money. I’m not convinced that spending $13.60 every time a student browses a book for more than five minutes is a better use of money. I’m not sure how we'll get there, but I’m pinning my hopes on open access. If we can find a way to fund publishing so that scholarship is available to all rather than rented to libraries at a high cost—sign me up. That's a library future that makes sense to me.

And I have feeling it will make a lot more sense to our students than what we're doing right now.

 

 

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