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Not Sold (Yet) on Ebooks
September 22, 2011 - 6:30pm

I’m getting ready to be a panelist for Library Journal’s second virtual summit on ebooks. I have ten minutes to present some thoughts on marketing ebook collections in academic libraries. My fellow panelists will have lots to say in their ten minutes. One of the panelists is from a library that offers over a million ebooks, and we’re not talking free public domain titles. The other panelist will discuss how to cope with the various formats and digital rights management hurdles. When these panelists speak, they'll provide a lot of useful information, and I predict the audience will be furiously taking notes. I think with me, they’ll merely be furious.

It’s partly a function of the kind of library I work at—undergraduate, residential, small—and partly my skeptical nature, but I still am not convinced we should invest in vast collections of books we don’t choose and don’t really own. So before I market something, I need to be persuaded my community needs it. And so far, there’s no demand.

This is a common technology paradox. Until people have been exposed to something, they don't know what they’re missing. Twenty years ago, would they have begged for electronic journals? No. But if we unplugged the ones we subscribe to today, they’d be distraught. That said, we made some terrible mistakes along the way to a digital journal future. I don’t want to repeat them with books.

So far our library’s only serious flirtation with ebooks, apart from some online reference sources, has been with netLibrary in its previous incarnations, and it would be unfair to make choices based entirely on that miserable experience,like choosing celibacy after a disastrous blind date. I talked to the originators of netLibrary when it first launched, in the late 1990s. They found gaining the trust of publishers far harder than the technological challenges, and restrictions publishers insisted on—no printing, no cutting and pasting, one user at a time—were limits that made no sense to students. Why have a book that's so hard to use? Again and again, students would encounter these books in the catalog, utter a few choice words, and then ask if we could get them a real book.

So before I redirect our dollars, I need to think about a few things.

  • Will our students like using ebooks - at least as much as print?
  • Will we be able to choose books that fit our curriculum, or will we have to pay for books that are of no interest to us?
  • Do our students really want lots and lots of books, or would they rather we do some thoughtful curation on their behalf?
  • Will they be able to use the ebooks the way they want to? This would include easy access without having to download software or remember passwords and the ability to print select pages.
  • Will the books be accessible to people with limited vision?
  • Will they be platform-agnostic?
  • Will libraries be able to share these books the ways they previously did, through interlibrary loan?
  • Will the vendors who supply these ebooks protect them from censorship and guard patron privacy? Will they preserve these books for future generations or allow someone else to do so?

These issues are probably fresh in my mind because we recently got word that the cost of our SAGE journal collection is jumping in price enormously as the publisher adds journals that we didn’t ask for and don’t want. The last time this happened, we asked what it would cost to subscribe to just the handful of journals we really need, and the quote they gave us was higher than the whole bundle. Between this abrupt price increase and a huge jump in prices for the American Chemical Society journals—another offer we can’t refuse—our budget has taken a big hit, and since we’ve been through three journal cancelations in the past decade and have little left to cut, our book budget will likely take the hit. It’s not surprising that book publishers want in on this racket.

But books are not like journal articles. Book publishers (understandably) will resist giving people a print option, whereas printing out an entire journal article is a common and accepted practice. Skimming a fifteen page article online is a lot easier than skimming a 300 page book, and reading closely—I'm guessing our students will prefer print, hands down.

Given that survey after survey has found students reluctant to buy into e-textbooks with limited rights, I’m wary of assuming they’ll embrace ebooks in the library. And while I can see why a research library would find ebook bundles attractive, undergraduates are not eager to have access to everything; in fact, Project Information Literacy found undergraduates use a variety of strategies to actively narrow the range of possibilities because they are overwhelmed by the options. Browsing the shelves of a small collection of hand-picked books works better than searching a database with a million books in it.

All this said, building a book collection, book by book, is not only hard work, it’s an uncertain art. The number of hand-chosen books that are never checked out in any academic library is disheartening, and students who are used to searching full text find library catalogs and their taxonomies frustrating to use. Locating books on the shelf can be a daunting stumbling block, too, particularly when papers are written at 3 a.m. the night before they are due. And then there’s the space books take up. It costs a lot to house books, and social learning spaces are in high demand.

So I’m not sure what I’ll say on this panel. I’ll probably raise a few questions, propose what I would like to see on offer, suggest (once again) that we’d be much better off investing in open access to academic knowledge - including academic books - than in licensing bundles that we cannot share, preserve, or control, and then cede my time to my fellow panelists who have more useful and practical matters to discuss.


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