The Protean Academic E-Book

The first thing you need to know about academic e-books is that everything about them is different from the e-books you download to your Kindle or nook. The market structure, the file types, digital rights, platforms, interfaces… everything. It’s an unlucky accident that they share the same name, because patrons who encounter their first academic e-book are usually confused. Set aside anything you know about ordinary e-books, and prepare to encounter the much messier world of academic e-books.

The BC Libraries E-Books Committee began as a temporary task force in 2010 to clarify the growing complexity of academic e-book acquisitions and recommend solutions. Ultimately, the most effective solution turned out to be the task-force’s continued work: they were the right mix of staff across library departments both to recommend solutions and execute them. They built up the collection–now 875,636 and growing, including such large online collections as Early English Books Online–and worked hard to ensure that patrons’ needs came first. Finally–just two years ago–the task force was reclassified as a standing committee, acknowledging that the world of academic e-book publishing was not getting any less jumbled. Or any less necessary: Users have come to appreciate some clear advantages of e-books, and innovative cross-department teams like this one have helped clarify user and library needs to e-book vendors.

BC Libraries acquires e-books via several different channels that evolve and change, according to Theresa Lyman, Online Learning Librarian and chair of the committee.  Relatively stable are the models called single-title purchases and demand driven acquisition (DDA). More recently, we have avoided buying large collections of titles since the usage is unpredictable; instead, we prefer an evidence-based approach that will concentrate purchases only on the more heavily used titles in a collection.

Single-title acquisition is similar to ordinary print acquisitions: a subject librarian requests a specific book from a distributor or publisher such as JSTOR or ProQuest (formerly Ebrary… one perennial source of change is corporate buyouts), and then specifies the available number of simultaneous users: unlimited is preferred. These titles are processed by the monograph (book) acquisitions department, whose staff acts as the intermediary between subject librarians, vendors, and the metadata department.  It’s something like being in the middle of a storm, says acquisitions staff.

With Demand Driven Acquisition, titles that BC Libraries doesn’t own but that fit BC’s purchasing profile appear in the catalog alongside titles we own. (Inside baseball: if you see the codes “YBPDDA” OR JSTOR DDA  it’s a DDA title.) Each platform sets its own triggers for purchase, so once a chapter in an ebook is viewed or downloaded a set number of times, the ebook is purchased by the library. DDA’s can help reduce the perennial “80/20” problem in most libraries–that 80% of a collection accounts for only 20% of circulation–by purchasing titles that have already demonstrated patron need.

Yet another model, Evidence Based Acquisitions (EBA), recently offered by JSTOR and Cambridge University Press among others, resolves many pricing problems. Rather than pay per use, a library pays a deposit for access to thousands of titles for a year: users can download chapters, and multiple patrons can use a title at any given time. At the end of the year, staff analyzes usage data to make purchase decisions. This model is welcome as long as the access price is affordable and the contract reduces barriers of Digital Rights Management (DRM).

As if the environment weren’t already dizzying, everything about e-books–the way a library buys titles, the rights associated with them, and the user interfaces–depends on each publisher’s approach. JSTOR, Springer, Elsevier, ProQuest, Wiley, and EBSCOhost books are some of the biggest vendors, and everything about them is different, top to bottom. ProQuest, for instance, is not a publisher so much as an entity that hosts content from publishers, and Springer, for one, sells almost exclusively in collections and direct to libraries, rather than through aggregators like ProQuest. DRM agreements vary widely. For instance, some allow interlibrary loan, some don’t, and each has different rules about download quantities. User interfaces can involve downloadable or embedded pdf’s or html full text, and range from straightforward to frustrating user design. Even particular collections or titles that each vendor offers may have different pricing models and rights, and titles that are available one month might not be available the next.

Part of the complication lies in the many uncertainties that remain in this still evolving subset of the academic book publishing industry. It’s a matter of value versus cost for libraries: e-books might provide user-responsive cost allocation, but they may also be provide less stable long-term guarantees about availability and platforms. Still an open question: what happens when a company is bought or goes out of business? When you buy a print book, that’s not a question you need to ask.

Theresa said that BC Libraries tries to balance user preferences for print or for online access, and is already responding to other changes that favor e-books, such as the growth of online and hybrid classes, and the growing recognition of the need for affordable course materials. No matter what happens next week or in the next decade, BC Libraries is already on a path of continually adapting and changing.

Steve Runge

Learning Commons Manager, O'Neill Library