What I Want from Library Ebooks | Peer to Peer Review

In my last column I discussed the various problems that I have with ebooks for academic libraries. Now I’d like to lay out what I want from library ebooks and what it would take for me to switch from print to electronic as the preferred format for books.
Wayne Biven-TatumIn my last column I discussed the various problems that I have with ebooks for academic libraries. Now I’d like to lay out what I want from library ebooks and what it would take for me to switch from print to electronic as the preferred format for books. Different librarians have different motivations for buying library ebooks. Some want to conserve space in the stacks. Some want to purchase only the books library users immediately want. My motivation to buy (or license) library ebooks is a user request. I’m interested in whatever is best for both libraries and library users, and spending a significant proportion of my budget for hobbled technology isn’t particularly good for either one. So here’s what it would take for me to switch my preference to ebooks over print titles. The changes would have to be pretty much industrywide for me to make the big move.

Unlimited Access

Unlimited access should be a no-brainer, but publishers keep selling single-use licenses to ebooks and librarians keep paying for them, so obviously it’s not. The main advantage of ebooks over print books for library users is accessibility. They might take up less room in the stacks, and a PDA (patron-driven acquisition) ebook plan might save the library some money, but neither of those goals has anything to do with providing the best experience for library users. If accessibility is the main advantage, then limiting that accessibility makes things worse for library users than they need to be. A print book is limited to a single person because it’s a physical object that’s not easily reproducible. An ebook is limited to a one individual because someone deliberately restricted access. Without a specific user request, I won’t buy ebooks with unnecessary usage restrictions, and sometimes I won’t buy one even with a request.

DRM-free Downloads

This one is similar to unlimited access. Unless specifically requested, I refuse to pay money to have access restricted in order to protect sales or copyright or whatever it is scholarly publishers think they are protecting by not allowing DRM-free downloads. Not everyone is going to be reading online. Some scholars are going to want to save relevant books and book chapters the same way they save articles. Entire services such as Zotero are designed to save works with their citations for ease of use. Ebooks technically can be saved the same way for the same purpose, and if that’s not available, then once again it’s an unnecessary hindrance to library users. iTunes and Amazon now sell DRM-free songs, and the music industry hasn’t collapsed. There’s nothing to fear.

Interlibrary Loan

Ebooks must be available for lending through interlibrary loan (ILL). Many publishers already allow this, and the missing feature is an apparatus for doing so. There are traditional channels for sending PDFs, but on this topic I do appreciate why publishers would be wary. Theoretically, one library could purchase an ebook and just send multiple copies to other libraries that have no intention of buying the book regardless of the use. I wouldn’t support DRM, but some sort of ILL/PDA option might work well. If a library borrows an ebook through ILL a couple of times, then the ILL transaction turns into a purchase. That would have to be built into publisher platforms to work, but if possible it would be a way to protect ILL while encouraging sales.

Individual Titles

Some publishers have great ebook platforms—Springer, for example—but it’s impossible to purchase single titles on those platforms. As a subject selector, I’m not interested in investing most or all of my budget in the entire package of a particular publisher’s ebooks. Although I have relatively generous funding for my areas, those funds are still limited, and I have to go with the option that gives me the most freedom of choice in the books I select. When we add in the other requirements such as unlimited access and DRM-free downloads, then my choice among ebooks is severely restricted. Even publishers that have good platforms will often sell individual titles only through third-party vendors with such restrictions. I had a request for a Springer ebook. My choice was a third-party vendor with a single-user license or buying an ebook package from Springer for $13,000. Thanks, but no thanks.

Reasonable Prices

By reasonable, I mean for both libraries and publishers. Amazon has inadvertently fostered the myth that because there’s no printing or physical distribution, book prices should be extremely low, but printing and distribution are a relatively small part of the cost of producing a book. The hardcover price of the book could be a minimum starting point for library ebooks. Some prices are just outrageous, though. I had a request to purchase an ebook from Oxford University Press. The book was published in 2004, and we already had a print copy. OUP offered to sell me an unlimited license for the ebook for $525. If that didn’t work for me, I could instead purchase a backfile containing the book for only $13,000. Again, thanks, but no thanks. The good news is that there are publishers and platforms that meet some or most of these criteria. The industry is obviously in transition, and I’m hoping it moves completely in this direction. However, until I have the same benefits I have with print books plus the benefits of ebooks, I won’t switch to ebooks as my first preference. For me, ebooks continue to be a nice add-on until such time as the industry standards improve, or I absolutely can’t buy print books anymore. I have to make a default choice between print and electronic for the majority of the books, and as long as publishers are deliberately restricting the capacity of ebook technology, I’ll still choose print as the default option.
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Karin Wikoff

Here's the thing -- yes, those are the ideals a librarian would want for an e-book. As head of tech services, I totally understand about needing to get the best resources for the most affordable prices. But how is it sustainable? Most academic texts already don't bring in enough revenue to cover the cost of producing and distributing them. I can see why so many publishers are terrified of electronic formats and the way they can take a huge gouge out of already slender profit margins (with a few notable exceptions I don't need to name here because you know who they are). What I'd really like to see is a conference table with a fair representation of both librarians and publishers who can all put aside their prejudices about each other to take the other guy's legitimate concerns in mind and come up with a model together that truly works for everyone. KW -- pipe dreamer

Posted : Dec 23, 2014 08:47


Patrick’s comment that, “I believe that if I buy an ebook, I should be able to use it for the rest of my life (with the occasional need for a format conversion).” touches on one of my concerns about academic libraries buying eBooks. The microform formats that we used just yesterday (think micro-opaque cards and ultrafiche) are obsolete. Libraries were offered the chance to replace large collections such as the Library of English Literature (LEL) and Library of American Civilization (LAC) with microfiche cards for around $50,000 a set, as I recall. The cost of that “format conversion” was beyond many libraries’ reach, and they still have the ultrafiche. Some are linking to digitized versions, but the labor of linking is not free. Sooner or later, there will be something disruptive that makes eBooks obsolete. Then libraries that have poured thousands of dollars into eBooks will be stuck with yet another obsolete format --unless they have funds to repurchase the same books in the new format (they won’t come free). Whether it is holographic books or something we have yet to imagine, I believe that libraries that buy and own eBooks should make generous terms for format conversions a condition of purchase.

Posted : Dec 18, 2014 11:00

Julia Mitford

Great article. I agree wholeheartedly with the points you've made, particularly about user licenses and pricing. I was looking to acquire a list of audio technology books for our library - only 1 copy of each would be generally required in print and we often go for paperback. The paperback is $65 AUD and Taylor & Francis through EBL are offering a digital copy for over $300. With prices like these we'll never be able to afford to stick with digital delivery. We can offer on demand eBooks with EBL but with some publishers now charging $40+ AUD for 7 day loans even that is almost impossible now. The EBL business model always reflected the way libraries are used and prices were reasonable but the publishers who think they're protecting their sales are stopping it from working to full effect, and I fear now they're part of the ProQuest empire there's no one fighting for that business model anymore. And guess what publishers? We'll just find a different text for our course which is priced more reasonably, or we'll stick with the $65 paperback thanks very much.

Posted : Dec 18, 2014 03:22

A Kelly

Another late comment! This is a great discussion and will help inform our collection policy... Our library is committed to providing resources for our distance-learning and non-traditional students (those who might not be able to fit a library visit into full-time work schedules, for example). So we have to consider eBooks as resources for curriculum in those programs. Here's hoping for better and better options that protect user privacy and facilitate user access.

Posted : Nov 20, 2014 02:06

Wayne BT

A Kelly, if I were in a library that supported a lot of distance users, I'd behave differently. I still wouldn't want to buy ebooks that didn't meet my criteria, but I'd have to. My campus is mostly residential, so that's not really an issue for me.

Posted : Nov 20, 2014 02:06

Dan D'Agostino

Thanks Brian, I appreciate the thoughtfulness of your points. I just want to be clear that my anger doesn't come from the idea that academic libraries are not choosing wisely from among the various types of packages that publishers are offering, but that publishers are not offering the kind of package that makes sense given the technology available. That is, what I want is not even on the table, or hasn't been until just recently (and then in a limited way). What I want to do is pay for downloadable e-books at a set fee per title, and the ability to choose title by title, rather than pay for unlimited cc use for a package of ebooks for which I have no control over content. In other words, a system for e-books that mimics the print world. Regarding DRM, my point is that some librarians, like the author of the piece above, do have an ideological aversion to DRM which I find incomprehensible. Just look at the music industry as a model for what would happen to academic publishing if DRM were removed entirely from all e-book content. It may be that the music industry has not collapsed, but most professional musicians are now poor. Only a very, very few can make money on recordings. If academic publishing went the same way I think what you would see is a much smaller number of titles, and very few commissioned works. How would this be a better world for the scholarly community? I am not an American, and perhaps it is unfair of me to say this, but it seems to me that this view that DRM is always bad, as our author seems to think, seems particularly American (that is, that regulation is inherently a bad thing). My point of view, which is shared by many outside the US, is that sometimes regulation is a good thing, particularly when used to protect vulnerable industries. Unlimited freedoms are not always in everyone's best interest. Sometimes insisting on unlimited freedoms (i.e., the abolition of all DRM on e-books) is the equivalent of cutting off your nose to spite your face. After all, what constitutes the better musical experience, listening to high quality recordings as in the past (a la the Beatles), or watching America's Top Idol today?

Posted : Nov 11, 2014 10:41

Wayne BT

Too often the DRM is deliberately used to reduce the ability to use what should be easy to use technology. It does nothing to enhance the reading experience for users. Here's an account of how it was used to make what should have been a simple experience with JSTOR ebooks an impossible one: https://blogs.princeton.edu/librarian/2014/11/best-that-can-be-done/

Posted : Nov 11, 2014 10:41


I am an American, and in my experience, DRM has always been bad for me, as a customer, in the long term. I buy many ebooks every year, and I generally have one basic requirements when a buy an ebook, DRMed or not: 1) That once I buy an ebook, it will continue to work. That doesn't seem so hard, does it? Except, I've seen ebook after ebook fail that test: 1) Once, my physical device died, and when I switched devices my ebooks no longer worked. (Strike 1) 2) Another time, the seller went out of business, causing everyone who had bought books from them to no longer be able to use their books. 3) So, you're probably thinking, this means I should have picked a bigger company. Well, both Amazon and Microsoft have, in the past, decided to shaft their consumers by removing support for a previous DRM system. In the case of Amazon, this was their pre-kindle Pdf format. For Microsoft, see "MSN Music". So yes, I have an aversion to DRM on purchased books, and it is somewhat ideological. I believe that if I buy an ebook, I should be able to use it for the rest of my life (with the occasional need for a format conversion). I don't believe that the format should break, just because the seller got bored of the format or went bankrupt. With proper care, a record or book can last over 40 years. I want ebooks that will last that long if I care for them. I do tolerate DRM for rentals though. With a rental, there is no assumption that the book will work in the future. I would say that DRM is perfectly fine. Just make sure it's only used in cases where failing next year is fine.

Posted : Nov 11, 2014 10:41

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