Libraries learn to love e-books

Share this on social media:

Topic tags: 

Research librarians around the world like providing e-books but many challenges remain. Sian Harris finds out why

For many years students and researchers used computers to access journals but still had to make the journey to their institution library to search out books on the shelves. The uptake of e-books in recent years has changed that, of course, and now e-books form a significant part of the collection plans of librarians in universities and elsewhere.

‘We have a policy to purchase the digital version of a book, if one is available, unless a library patron specifically requests the print version,’ noted Mark England, collection development librarian at the University of Utah, USA.

This story is echoed elsewhere in the world and in different types of institution. ‘Our college library is changing acquisition policies in line with modern trends. From the coming year onwards, we are going to devote 20 to 30 per cent of our acquisition budgets towards purchasing e-books,’ said Gurpreet Singh Sohal, librarian at GGD SD College Library in India. ‘In our acquisitions, we are going to follow required reading lists and purchase e-books that are prescribed in the syllabus as essential reading.’

Such shifts in acquisition plans have an effect on the make-up of collections. Terry Bucknell, electronic resources manager at the University of Liverpool, UK, pointed out that his library has around two million print books and a couple of hundred thousand e-books – but that the print collection has been built up over centuries whereas the growth in e-books has only been in the last few years. ‘Our collection management policy does say that, all things being equal, we’d prefer e to p,’ he added.

Buying e-books

Although there are many trends in the shifts from print to electronic, the details of how they are purchased vary between libraries. There are many ways that e-books can be purchased, and different libraries have different priorities.

Sales directly from publishers are often in the form of collections of e-books – analogous to the journal big deal. These give libraries large bodies of content but little control over which books they get, and many titles may never be used.

Many libraries now favour patron-driven acquisition (PDA) or demand-driven acquisition (DDA), where e-books are acquired at the request of patrons. These should ensure that all the books purchased are used but tend to work out more expensive per book than the large collections. PDA also comes in many flavours, with different ways of triggering purchases or rental.

At the University of Liverpool the preference is for e-books packages and single titles as requested by users, according to Liverpool’s Bucknell. The approach for the single titles is essentially ‘manual PDA’. ‘The level of requests is very modest because we subscribe to ebrary and lots of collections,’ he said. ‘We’ve never gone live with PDA. We’d prefer users make use of the books we already subscribe to and we would also want to make sure we don’t put books into PDA that we already have.’

He also commented on the package purchase approach: ‘With some packages we realised we had made a bad decision, so did not buy more of those packages. However, you can’t decide whether a package is good until you’ve had it at least a year. There is so little consistency at a book level, year by year.

‘The ebrary Academic Complete collection that we’ve subscribed to for many years is fantastic value. Three quarters is never used but I don’t care because for the quarter that is used we get good value.’

The University of Utah takes a different approach. ‘Some e-books are purchased on standing order or on approval. Some are selected by patrons or librarians and firm ordered. Some are purchased as collections. Most are acquired as part of DDA programmes. We have multiple DDA programmes,’ commented England. ‘We can make available for researchers a large number of books at a low cost. These costs will increase as the number of books in our catalogue grows and as the number of books that have short-term loans becomes greater, but DDA programmes are still less expensive and offer more value to library users and to society than approval programmes.’

Pralhad Jadhav, manager of knowledge management and library at Khaitan & Co., in India, also favours title-by-title choice of books. ‘Most licences for e-book packages give librarians no control over the titles included in the package. Vendors are free to add or remove titles during the term of the agreement, often without notifying the subscribing institution. Most e-book packages include a substantial number of titles that are not relevant to the needs of the subscribing library, including backlist titles that would not generate much revenue if offered individually.’ However, he also noted that ‘when acquired individually, academic e-books cost substantially more than print editions.’

Jisc in the UK has commissioned a report into e-books from Ken Chad Consulting and the project website includes some case studies of e-books in university libraries (see box for link). One example is the University of Newcastle. According to the case study, published in November 2012: ‘Implementing PDA systems has allowed the library to move from a just-in-case stock acquisition model to a just-in-time model. PDA is ensuring higher net usage, user demands are being met more effectively and satisfaction amongst users has increased... PDA has attracted very positive feedback from end-users and the service has now been extended to provide PDA for print books using a fast track request system.’

However, the case study also noted: ‘PDA operation was challenging, as the initial usage was very high and the library had to work closely with the service provider to ensure that spending patterns became sustainable.’

DRM issues

‘Generally libraries love PDA but there are some limitations. DRM is one of the potential problems. I think PDA can also be quite administratively burdensome, although once processes are more defined there should be greater efficiencies,’ noted Ben Showers, programme manager, digital libraries at Jisc.

Jadhav has concerns about DRM on e-books: ‘Many licences require repeated payments for access to content that does not change over time. E-book publishers have taken advantage of the changing digital environment to weaken the legal framework that has traditionally favoured libraries and their patrons,’ he said. He added that ‘licence terms vary considerably, and the lack of standardisation is a significant impediment to cost-effective e-book management.’

Bucknell has particular concerns with DRM if buying e-books via aggregators: ‘We’d prefer DRM-free books and this usually means buying direct from publishers. It’s a more complex process but we’d rather have more hassle at purchase than for the users. We’re seeing more progress with DRM-free content from publishers – and some, like Springer, always took that view. However books can end up with DRM through aggregators platforms.’

His dream would be for publishers to work closer with e-book vendors so that the access to e-books can be on the publishers’ platforms with no DRM.

Availability of e-books is another issue that Bucknell highlighted. ‘Textbooks, especially, are the main problem,’ he said. ‘A lot of the books we’d like to get are not e-books or only available to individuals and not to libraries.’

And then, of course, there is cost. As former librarian and now independent research scholar from Kerala, India, Jessie Satyanesan, noted: ‘No single library can afford to purchase all e-books from publishers directly.’

One solution, which seems popular in India, is to purchase e-books as part of consortia. ‘Consortia such as the Indian National Digital Library in Engineering Science and Technology (INDEST) and Developing Library Network (DELNET) provide access to numerous e-book titles at discounted rates,’ Satyanesan noted.

E-book usage

Usage of e-books is an important consideration for librarians. Bucknell noted that discovery plays a key role in this. ‘Since we’ve launched our discovery service, journal usage has increased moderately but e-book usage has increased drastically,’ he said. ‘In the past, students went to known books that they found in library catalogues. With the discovery service, they are finding other things. However, there is still a long way to go to make book content as discoverable as journal content.’

‘Many e-books are used much more than their print counterparts,’ noted England. ‘We have e-books in the collection that were downloaded more than 200 times in the past year. No print book could circulate that number of times. DDA programme purchases have to be used in order to trigger an acquisition, whereas many acquired print books never circulate.’ He also observed that print collections are not growing as fast as they used to.

However, a challenge with moving from print to electronic that England has noticed is that ‘some publishers or providers of e-books do not provide all the usage statistics or complete bibliographic records. For example, our budget allocation formulas are more difficult to compute just because some providers of e-books do not assign call numbers to the e-books. One of the factors we look at in allocating book budgets is circulation or use within a subject. It takes more work to accurately assign usage statistics to the correct subject area when call numbers are not assigned.

‘With regard to demand driven acquisition programmes, one challenge is which unused book records to remove from the programme and when the records for unused books are removed. We are developing deselection profiles to govern these decisions, but I believe some libraries are removing all unused books after a year or two and some are not removing any titles.’

Verena Weigert, programme manager research information and responsible for the Jisc report, noted another challenge with e-book usage: ‘There is discussion around student attitudes to e-books and what they see as credible. There is still very much the notion of print books being the most credible source, so people read the e-book but cite the print book.’

Her colleague, Showers, agreed: ‘There’s a question of how you demonstrate impact if people are using e but citing p. Students like e-books because they can access them anywhere at any time but when it comes to writing they are still in hybrid mode. They can only have so many e-books open at once and still tend to spread print books around them on their desks.’

He continued: ‘E-books are still very traditional and print-like. They haven’t fully exploited multimedia. However, students are also still restricted and restrained by what they are required to do on their courses.’

Collection building

There are challenges in collection building too, said Bucknell; in particular, the need to ensure that students find and use the latest versions of a book – a harder task than simply replacing one version with a newer one on the shelf.

‘In things like medicine or law, old books can be unhelpful and even dangerous,’ he explained. ‘The library has to either remove older versions from the discovery service themselves or ask the publisher to remove them. It is hard to do this on a systematic basis, especially as authors and ISBNs change and there are so many more books to keep track of when they are bought in packages.’

On the flip side, long-term preservation of e-books is very important to librarians. ‘We do want publishers to use the likes of LOCKSS, CLOCKSS and Portico and for libraries to have access to them in long term,’ said Bucknell.

Jadhav noted some of the challenges: ‘The multiplicity of e-book file formats poses serious difficulties for both cross-platform compatibility and long-term access. The preservation of e-books is especially difficult because it requires the long-term maintenance of several distinct elements: texts, file formats, software, operating systems, and hardware,’ he said.

Showers agreed: ‘Preservation of e-journals is only something that we’re now trying to address in a big way and e-journals are much more mature. As with journals, the whole issue of preservation is a complex and neglected thing. Who takes responsibility? Are libraries going to trust publishers?’ He also said preservation initiatives can struggle as budgets are cut.

Librarian role

E-books could change the role of libraries too. Showers noted that libraries are playing more of a role in the creation of this type of content and aggregating their own types of e-book. He pointed to work by the UK’s Open University in turning distance-learning course material into multimedia-rich e-books: ‘Libraries have a role as publishers. Rather than just buying content, they are disseminating it. This starts to impact on how things like course notes are created in the first place. That will be interesting as MOOCs (massive online open courses) evolve. And university libraries becoming involved in content creation could have impacts on the role of institutional repositories and implications for university presses.

E-books may be clear parts of library plans but discussions about them are not yet over.

What some of the research says
  • The ‘2012 Survey of E-book Usage in U.S. Academic Libraries’, conducted by Library Journal, found that nearly one third of academic libraries have adopted patron-driven acquisitions models.
  • A survey of e-books in India found that 45 per cent of respondents prefer physical copies only, 20 per cent prefer e-books only and 35 per cent would switch from physical to e-book versions if major discounts were provided.
  • The Jisc-commissioned research, led by Ken Chad Consulting, ‘The challenge of ebooks in academic institutions: Creation, Curation and Consumption’ is ongoing at the time of going to press, but already includes several case studies.
  • Another Jisc-funded study, ‘E-Books and Consortial Purchasing: Benefits & Challenges’ carried out by Royal Holloway, UK, has looked at the advantages and disadvantages of different PDA approaches.