Have you seen an e-book for sale on Amazon, asked the library to buy it, and been told that there is no electronic version of that book available? Are you looking for an e-book you read a few months ago, but it no longer works? It’s very annoying – and I can assure you that we in Information Services share your annoyance. Our policy is that e-books are the way forward. They enable us to dramatically increase the range and number of titles available to our users, at reduced cost and with no impact on our limited shelf space. Many (although by no means all) of our users prefer working with e-books over print, citing the speed and ease of searching, and the ability to access hundreds of thousands of titles from anywhere in the world, at any time. But in spite of the undoubted benefits that e-books bring, there are many problems – and I shall attempt to summarise these now.
E-book publishing is a new, complex, and constantly changing field. We try our best to source e-books whenever they are requested, but sometimes we are simply not able to. With e-books, it is the publishers who decide the price, licencing terms, digital rights management, number of simultaneous users, and so on, which subsequently determines whether we can purchase the book. Most publishers make their e-books available on aggregator sites (such as ebrary or Dawsonera, the sites which host the vast majority of our e-books) and can be purchased by libraries on an institution-wide basis; some publishers do not. Human Kinetics is one such publisher. They will not sell to institutions, only to individual users. The reason for this is very easy to explain: money. They will make more money by selling twenty copies of the e-book to twenty individual students than they would by selling one copy to a library that those twenty students could then share.
We have investigated various ways of informing staff and students of this sort of limitation, such as maintaining a list of publishers who don’t sell e-books to institutions, but it is not that straightforward. The e-book licencing goalposts are constantly shifting, and it is very difficult to manage. Springer, for example, does not sell individual titles on institution-wide basis, but they do sell e-book packages to libraries. OUP is another complicated one; originally its content was available via Dawsonera, but then two years ago OUP built its own platform called Oxford Scholarship Online (OSO). We bought one e-book on OSO; now OUP has removed a lot of the content from that platform, put all the legal titles onto another new platform (called LawTrove), which only individuals can access, and put other e-books for sale, again only to individuals, via Amazon and other third party vendors. Then there’s Pearson, who do make their content available to libraries via Dawsonera, but every six months or so change the licencing terms to make them less favourable (reducing the number of uses allowed in a year, reducing the number of simultaneous users, removing the ability to download for offline reading, increasing the price…). It’s not just Dawsonera that has content withdrawn from it; the titles available to us via our ebrary subscription change frequently, with hundreds of new titles being added to, and dozens of titles being removed from, the collection each month. The sheer scale of the changes makes this difficult to manage, but we are currently working on a way of supressing the removed titles from the catalogue and ordering replacement copies if necessary.
The variety of different platforms, the inconsistency of licence terms from publisher to publisher, and the fact these terms are in a constant state of flux, all serve to frustrate and alienate our users. There are limits to what we can do to change this situation, although we are making some progress: HE libraries, and JISC, negotiate with publishers en masse to secure favourable pricing and terms where we can – but these tend to be for large multi-title packages with the big publishers. Also, JISC has recently written to Pearson on behalf of all HE institutions to express our collective displeasure at the way the company is increasingly frustrating our efforts to offer a decent service to our students. There has been no response from Pearson yet, but there was no small amount of schadenfreude in the library a few weeks ago when their share price plummeted and they were forced to issue a profits warning.
I am confident that e-books will one day be the best way for academic libraries to deliver content to their users, but until access is uniformly seamless, reliable, and cost-effective, e-books are also a source of great frustration for staff and students. I appreciate that frustration, but can assure you that we feel just as strongly and we are doing all we can to manage this difficult situation, and provide our users with the resources they need.
I hope that this has gone some way to addressing some of the main concerns about e-books, and provided an explanation for the current situation. If you have any further questions, or suggestions for how we might improve this service, please do get in touch with us at firstname.lastname@example.org.