Thursday, 23 June 2016

Where is the Library with ebooks?

EBooks and the Library

The Library buys books, this much everybody understands, but when it comes to buying ebooks for a university library the complexity of the market can sometimes be hard to convey.  It is a shifting complexity where libraries and universities are being dictated to by publishers in a way that often makes it hard to deliver the books in the way we want to our users.  As an illustrative example of this, it is worth sharing a recent case study from work with the Department of History.

People have differing preferences between print and ebooks.   In libraries, we are information professionals and interested in delivering info by the most effective means.   We work on a case by case basis and have been driven by user behaviour.   There are plenty of examples where the printed book is the better medium, but it is not the purpose here to indulge in that debate.  Rather, it is analyse a few of the assumptions about ebooks and dispel a few myths by way of a real life example

As a rule, we like ebooks.  They provide wider access than print - and often more economically than buying multiple copies.  We can deliver them to whole year groups at a time because they are covered by licenses we don’t have to ask for permission or pay expensive fees (as we do when scanning/photocopying print book chapters for reading lists).  Ebooks do not take up physical space in the library and push out less used books from our research collection.  Increasingly, students want to be able to access a book when they need it off-campus, from home - which could be anywhere in the world - and they want the functionality of an electronic resource that can be integrated with the way they study.   For these reasons, at Sheffield we have a strategy of preferring ebooks unless otherwise specified.  

Although Amazon like to imply that every book can be made available as an ebook it is not the reality. Even if it were, kindle ebooks (and their competitor formats) are licensed specifically so that cannot be shared by a library’s community.   For academic books the picture is more patchy still.  Just as some hardbacks never make it to paperback, so many books are not produced in e-formats.   Academic Ebooks exist under different platforms and different formats with ever-changing license models designed for the commercial needs of the publisher rather than the end-user needs of readers.   It would be fair to say it is a market that has yet to fully mature and settle.

‘Case study’

History delivers a L1 UG module where students study a seminal text in depth.  As they would be looking at whole text over a semester, supplying the reading via e-offprint approach was out.  Rather than the department buying them as disposable textbooks we set out to deliver them as ebooks via the library.   This then gave a list of texts that are not obscure and that were assumed to be well-regarded enough for the publishers to make available as (library purchasable) ebooks.  The preferred ebook format is the replenishing credit model (outlined further below) as this provides the broadest access to our students, generally at the best price.  

There is a specialist team within the Library who take care of book supply, and will order books in the most appropriate format. As subject librarians we are less involved in that part of the process, and it is easy to make assumptions about availability.  The results then are illustrative of the complexity of ebooks.

E-Book (Credit)
E-Book (User)
Kindle Only
No E-Book

17/31 are available as (Library) Ebooks.   So, we are only able to deliver just over half electronically (only 16/31 are currently available for kindle download).  For the others we will rely on ‘old-fashioned’ multiple print copies and the reservation system (which will automatically order extra copies based on demand).  Ignoring Single-user ebooks (which are problematic see below) we are only able to deliver 13/31 in our preferred way, which is surprising when the expectation was we would be able to deliver the vast majority.

Also, it is worthy noting that of the 17 books that are available as ebooks they are delivered via at least 6 different platforms again showing the complexity that needs to be navigated when dealing with the ebook market.

What are some of the models?

Credit Model (replenishing)
The library has a number of credits (200-400) which equate to the number of times a resource is viewed. (they can be downloaded)  These credits last for a year and are replenished.  If you run out you buy another ‘copy’.  This model provides the most flexibility, and is generally the most economic - copies are expensive but provide a lot more coverage than a print copy. Large classes can all view a resource at the same time

Single-user / Multi-user*
One user can view the resource at any one time, or you can buy extra copies for multiple users at any time.  If another user turns up they have to wait in a queue until one of those reading logs-off and frees us the license.   If, as often happens, a whole class needs to read a resource in a relatively short period it makes it hard to provide coverage without buying multiple - much more expensive than print - copies.

*There has been a trend amongst some publishers to swap to this model unilaterally without telling us.  Meaning we often go from having sufficient coverage to inadequate coverage

5 of the books are part of a package we subscribe to.   In this instance ACLS Ebooks.  Most of these are not available as a library or commercial ebook.  They were digitised as a result of a scheme by American Council of Learned Societies.  These are books the publishers often find uneconomic to digitise.   These are then made available to universities for a subscription fee.

Free / OpenAccess Ebook
Plenty of books are made available free through things like DOAB.  Or they have been made available OpenAccess because the author (or their research funders) has paid the publisher.  This then is integrated into the wider library catalogue by our metadata colleagues

Download only
Essentiually like the model used for kindle, but without the associated ability to share.  It is akin to the library buying a copy and giving it away from the collection.  It is not a sustainable model, and in may cases the publishers won’t sell to libraries as they will not agree to their licensing terms

Low Credit (Non replenishing)
Offering numbers of credits that are too low to be useful, also we do not maintain the book within the library collection it gradually degrades and then disappears

No Ebook Option
Despite the fact that modern publishers type-set electronically and will send this version to be printed, some still find it uneconomical (ie they can make more money bay not doing it) to make the text available as an ebook.

What next?

Libraries are interested in provided access to resources in as economical way as possible, hopefully via a method that suits our users.   The ebook market is a fact of life that sometimes makes achieving this harder.   However, we will always get the books needed and in many cases that is still by relying on print.  We are also - as a sector - involved in advocacy for a more transparent market.

Increasingly people expect ebooks, and ebooks available in a format that is useful to them.  The OpenAccess agenda that began in academic journal publishing is now developing fast for the publication of monographs.  Academic books are produced from the research of academics working within our universities, it is strange that these institutions are then required to buy this back at inflated prices.   In this respect commercial publishers are a barrier to the wider consumption and impact of this research.   The vagaries of the ebook market demonstrate this.  So if you are a researcher thinking about publication you should consider what restrictions your publisher is likely to place on your work.   

- If you would like to discuss publishing options further there is a dedicated OpenAccess team within the library

- If you have any problems with existing ebooks please report them to our eservcies team via the link on StarPlus.

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