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The state of scholarly e-books today and tomorrow: Constance Malpas, OCLC Research

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E-books play an increasingly important role in research libraries. We ask people from across the industry for their perspective on scholarly e-books today

Constance Malpas, program officer, OCLC Research

E-books are a significant concern for academic libraries. Recent research found e-books to be the number-one priority of academic library managers in Germany, the Netherlands, the UK and the USA. Yet, even as research libraries are investing more of their budgets in e-resources, print books still constitute a significant part of research library collections. From a resource allocation perspective, it’s not uncommon for US research libraries to spend 70 per cent or more of the acquisitions budget on licensed content, so we expect to see the balance in library holdings shift toward ‘e’ as well. But there is a supply-side dimension: academic publishers have not moved to electronic formats as rapidly as some other sectors.

Across the academic library sector, we see a shift toward shared approaches to collections in print and digital formats; the workflows needed to manage local e-book collections are at odds with these new approaches. Integrating e-book collections into library operations is not just ensuring that these materials are made visible, available and useful alongside legacy collections – it’s how e-books fit in the larger institutional environment, the degree to which they support new models of distance education, and digital scholarship.

Also, as more academic libraries experiment with patron-driven or demand-driven acquisition models for e-books, there are some issues with calibrating those ad hoc acquisitions with the more intentional or curatorial approach of subject bibliographers. There is a budget aspect, but also an organisational dimension as some staff view the purchasing models as threatening to academic librarians.

Academic print collections continue to grow alongside e-book collections, but there is a more deliberate effort from institutions to invest in different formats. Among research libraries, there is still concern about the preservation of licensed e-book content and this sometimes means institutions acquiring print and electronic versions of content as a safeguard.

This strategy comes with a downside, as it diminishes the library’s ability to increase its collection. We see more libraries working hard to leverage shared preservation infrastructure, so that they can invest in content. The emergence of the shared HathiTrust digital repository is important here, representing an effort by research libraries to fill a gap in the preservation infrastructure, and enable a progressive rationalisation of local print collections.

With respect to the impact of e-book availability on demand for and use of print books, opinions differ and evidence is scarce. Also, popular titles are more likely to be available as e-books than specialist monographs. Thus, the marginal increase in demand for ‘long tail’ books republished in digital formats may be difficult to detect.

There is clearly demand for services that enable libraries to integrate e-book collections into local discovery systems and shared catalogues. We are developing partnerships and technologies that automate some of this work for libraries, by aggregating metadata and licence terms for major e-book collections and making those available as a shared resource.

The interesting challenge that is emerging with e-books (and with the growing corpus of digitised books) is the need for management systems that understand the relationships between print, digitised and licensed versions of the same content. This is critical for research libraries, as they have limited institutional resources to work with and are expected to build broad – if not comprehensive – collections. The motivation to limit redundant investment in content in these various formats is very high, and the need to provide discovery and delivery solutions that can sort out the relationships between print, licensed and digital is great.