E-Library Economics

New research indicates that e-book oriented libraries could save colleges a bundle, but academics may have a hard time letting go of the stacks.
February 10, 2010

Suzanne Thorin, dean of libraries at Syracuse University talked the talk in November at Educause, urging a crowd of university librarians to “move on to a new concept of what the university library is” — in her view, a place with fewer books and more space for students to sit around and access library resources on their laptops. But when Thorin tried to walk the walk a week later, she found her path obstructed by hundreds of outraged students and professors who chafed at her plan to ship many volumes to remote storage.

Thorin might have been visionary in her plan to relieve the library of some of its print collection in an effort to cut library costs, but she was naïve if she thought it wouldn’t meet with resistance on campus. So suggest two studies, slated to be published this spring by the Council on Library and Information Resources, examining the implications of the much-ballyhooed shift to digital library collections.

The first, by Paul Courant, dean of libraries at the University of Michigan, and Matthew “Buzzy” Nielsen, an Oregon-based library economist, meticulously compares the costs of keeping bound books on the shelves versus the costs of warehousing print collections and focusing on delivering library resources in electronic form. The second, by Geneva Henry and Lisa Spiro of Rice University’s Digital Media Center, explores several campus-based efforts to build new libraries oriented to the digital future.

Taken together, these studies point to twin conclusions: The sooner professors and students embrace e-books, the sooner their libraries can start saving money -- but that might not happen for a while.

While Henry and Spiro acknowledge that libraries seem to be headed in the direction of primarily digital infrastructures, they also note that the journey is slow going.

“Some scholars insist that they need to be able browse books on the shelves so that they can serendipitously discover related works,” write Henry and Spiro in their paper. In addition to the Syracuse protests, they note an incident at Stanford University where a proposal to store volumes from its East Asian library remotely prompted a formal report from the library committee on “the importance of print collections and browsing.” That report suggested that it could take up to half a century — or two generations of faculty — before faculty in certain disciplines will abide the preeminence of digital over print.

But campus resistance to digital creep might not boil down to simple antiquarianism. Notwithstanding Apple’s new iPad, the e-reader market may be as unprepared to be embraced by academe as academe is to embrace e-books. “Although some e-book standards such as ePub are beginning to emerge, there is still significant flux and divergence from those standards,” Henry and Spiro write. “Standards are important in enabling consumers to read content from multiple publishers on their devices, to move content around to multiple devices, and to preserve books for the long-term.”

Though e-books are poised to gain a firm foothold in higher education within the decade, the authors predict, academics and e-reader vendors aren't yet on the same page. This is largely due to the fact that e-readers have not managed to replicate certain aspects of the traditional book-reader's user experience: “You can do a lot with a print book: photocopy or scan as many pages as you like, scrawl in the margins, highlight passages, bookmark pages, skip around, read it in the bathtub, give it to someone else, make art out of it, etc.,” the Rice researchers note. “Due to constraints imposed by some [Digital Rights Management] regimes, readers of e-books may find that they only can print a limited number of pages, have to navigate awkwardly through the book, cannot take notes or bookmark pages, and cannot give the book to someone else.” While they enjoy the searchability of electronic documents and databases, academics still prefer holding a book in their hands to read it.

These advantages come at a price, though. Print volumes are, after all, voluminous — a property that implies a series of relatively pricey preservation costs. According to Courant and Nielsen, these work out to an average of $4.26 per book, per year when you take into account, maintenance, cleaning, electricity for temperature control, staffing, and circulation, as well as the considerable funds that go into building and renovating centrally located, open-stack facilities to house the volumes.

E-books are cheaper across the board — most notably in space and maintenance. Courant and Nielsen don’t get into precise modeling for e-book storage, but they note that the digital media repository Hathi Trust stores five million copies at $0.15 per volume, per year (that cost could rise to $0.40 for color volumes). Not only can e-book databases put many more books at scholars’ fingertips, but the medium seems intuitively suited for long-term storage: “While [print] books deteriorate with use, the reliability of e-books tends to be improved with use,” Courant and Nielsen write. (Though, as Henry and Spiro note, as technology evolves preservationists face a challenge in making sure e-books remain compatible with the hardware used to access them.)

“Where it is legally and functionally possible to make the move to electronic storage and use of the working copies of academic materials, there is substantial economic gain,” Courant and Nielsen add.

There is, of course, a middle way — the one that Thorin was trying to take at Syracuse when she proposed to store remotely bound books that were rarely checked out or already offered electronically: “hybrid” storage, where new print volumes are kept on the shelves for a decade or two before being moved to cheaper “high-density” storage, retrievable by request. Books held in high-density facilities, which are meant purely for storage and not display, cost only $0.86 per year to keep in usable condition, Courant and Nielsen figure. If a book is initially maintained in the library proper and transferred to high-density storage after 10 years, it would work out to a $1.53 upkeep. Transferred after 20 years, it would cost $1.99. Either way, it's cheaper than keeping the print collection available for browsing, but still more expensive than print.

While they may have won a battle at Syracuse, those academics who exalt the serendipitous pastime of browsing through endless stacks may be overcome by budget-minded administrators as new research brings the relative costs of electronic-oriented libraries versus traditional ones into focus and best practices begin to emerge from experiments in library design. “Library directors answer not only to faculty, but also to administrators,” write Henry and Spiro. “The administrators who provide library budgets may be reluctant to fund new facilities to house print collections and may question large expenditures to support both print and electronic formats. Library directors must consider not only the immediate expectations of faculty, but also the long-term goals for the library.”


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