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The scholarly e-book revolution is coming, but there’ll be a few bumps on the road before we get there.

By SUZANNE BOWNESS | SEP 10 2012

How do you borrow a book from an academic library? For at least a century, the answer has involved climbing several flights of stairs, winding your way through silent rows of dusty old shelves, and sliding your fingers along the uneven spines of old volumes until you reach the desired Dewey Decimal. That is, until the day the catalogue results began to include not only call numbers but also hyperlinks.

But those trips down dusty shelves aren’t a thing of the past – yet. The amount spent by academic libraries on electronic monographs is rising, but these expenditures still make up less than a third of total monograph spending, according to 2009-2010 statistics (PDF) from a sample of seven Canadian university libraries. Compare that to electronic journals, which hit the tipping point – accounting for more than half of total serials expenditures – nearly a decade ago. Spending on electronic journals is now nearly five times that of the hard-copy versions.

The data comes from the Canadian Association of Research Libraries, which represents Canada’s 29 largest university libraries along with national institutions such as Library and Archives Canada. The association’s executive director, Brent Roe, credits the increasing availability and ease of use of portable book-reading devices (e-readers, tablet computers and smartphones) with finally bringing e-books into the mainstream. But he notes that the form and therefore the trend towards e-books still has some way to go. “We’re not at the beginning, but neither are we at the point we’ve reached with journals,” he says.

Mr. Roe expects works that benefit from being searchable and portable, such as the Oxford English Dictionary, to be more quickly embraced than the typical monograph. “Reference works will be the vanguard.” He also points to disciplines where research moves fast and works are prone to quick obsolescence as being natural adopters of e-books – information technology, business and engineering, for example.

An existing demand

Students and faculty alike, according to anecdotal reports, are starting to ask for e-books. Scott Gillies, head of information resources and collections at the University of Guelph Library, says librarians who try to direct students to the stacks are now met with expressions of incredulity. “To an undergrad, the notion that a book would only be available in print is preposterous,” he says, noting that young adults have become accustomed to easily accessing electronic content in other facets of their everyday lives.

Jill Crawley-Low is assistant dean of services to libraries at the University of Saskatchewan and responsible for the library’s collections. She says that the university’s subject-specialist librarians pay attention to the way users in the discipline consume information, then use that information as the basis for deciding whether to purchase electronic or print resources. For instance, medical e-books can incorporate multi-media features such as videos on how to perform procedures, an obvious benefit.

Yet librarians do not typically select books title by title, electronic or otherwise. Wayne Jones, associate university librarian for collections and technical services at Carleton University Library, buys most of his e-books in huge packages of hundreds or even thousands of titles, mostly bundled by subject and discounted by quantity.

“The publisher or aggregator is interested in offering books in bulk, so the price is accordingly much less than you would otherwise pay,” says Mr. Jones. Often these bundles are licensed on a yearly or perpetual basis and in terms of “seats” that limit the number of users allowed to read the book online at the same time (options range from a single seat to unlimited seats, priced accordingly). Besides new titles, bundles often include older books, as publishers delve into their backlists to digitize past content.

And while librarians try to figure out how best to acquire online books, publishers are also grappling with how to market them. Noting that electronic sales have “increased steadily,” Oxford University Press Canada’s president David Stover says that the trend, surprisingly, has also had a positive impact on print.

“People would stumble across a monograph [online] and in many cases discover that it was exactly what they wanted to add to their personal library. So it was much more synergistic than we initially expected.” The press continues to experiment with other strategies in the online space, for instance by inviting smaller presses to join its portal called University Press Scholarship Online in order to use the resources it developed.

The roadblocks

Even though publishers and librarians both seem game for the e-book revolution, the movement has its roadblocks. Books are much longer than journal articles and therefore more tedious to read on a screen. Interoperability, or finding e-books that work on multiple platforms, is another huge issue.

“We try to pick the ones that are most user-friendly and have features to help you read,” says Ms. Crawley-Low regarding her purchasing decisions at the University of Saskatchewan. Yet the field is still vastly inconsistent. “They may only be available for PC or Mac, and some may not be available on mobile devices like phones or iPads.”

A related issue is preservation. “When we buy print books, we put them on the shelf and own them. If they fall apart, we can repair them. With e-books, we may own them or we may only lease them. Many times they are on the servers of vendors and publishers. Libraries have always worried about access,” says Ms. Crawley-Low.

Also, whereas journal subscriptions have typically been bought and housed by institutions (a precedent upheld by e-journals), when it comes to scholarly books, they are sometimes sold to students directly for use in a course. That market might shrink because e-books are now shared through a library portal. Issues like these have the potential to cause tension between librarians and publishers.

There’s also the frustration for librarians and students when some publishers hold back the digital versions of scholarly books until after the hard copy comes out. “Sometimes their embargo can be six months, which is a long time when you talk about wanting it for the fall term,” says Mr. Jones at Carleton. Publishers may charge more for the electronic version than the print version, as well.

If the choice between print and e-book seems to be making the librarian’s job more complicated, that’s just the beginning. Thanks to e-books, some institutions have started to experiment with a strategy called patron-driven acquisition, where library users can find and access desired publications online before the library actually purchases them. As soon as a set number of patrons download and read a portion of the work, from the vendor’s point of view that’s a purchase; the library is charged and the title is added to the collection.

According to the Scholarly Kitchen blog, such an arrangement has the potential “to solve one of the library’s longstanding and fundamental problems: the fact that traditional ‘just-in-case’ collections give patrons access to only a tiny (and inconsistently relevant) sliver of the population of documents that are actually available for use.”

Last year, the Ontario Council of University Libraries had several universities test the patron-driven model. Librarians are studying the results to decide whether it might have a place in their acquisitions strategies.

The changing space of libraries

Besides changing the way librarians do their jobs, e-books also have the potential to change the library’s physical configuration. Users’ strong preference for e-journals over print journals has allowed many libraries to move the paper versions into storage, and books could be next.

“Sometimes, when libraries have developed their new learning commons, they have been able to use space formerly devoted to paper journals,” says CARL’s Mr. Roe. Freeing up this space reaffirms libraries as a central hub, not just for information but also for meeting and interaction, he says.

Universities have chosen to deal with the realities of their aging print collections in different ways. Carleton has an on-site storage facility while Guelph shares an offsite warehouse with its sister libraries at the universities of Windsor and Waterloo (they also share a catalogue and many common library policies).

Meanwhile, the University of Calgary’s new Taylor Family Digital Library, which opened in October 2011, employs an off-campus facility – a state-of-the-art, high-density library that allows six times as many books to be stored in a given area compared with a traditional library. The high-density library houses about 60 percent of the institution’s book and journal collections.

While librarians seem to welcome the changes that electronic content is bringing to their buildings, they are still keeping a nervous eye on the e-books themselves. At the University of Saskatchewan, Ms. Crawley-Low has a wish list for the e-book’s development.

“I think what librarians would like is one e-book platform for all books that’s easy to use, easy to search, and works on all devices. Librarians want to provide the best information in the best format for our users. We would like to know that our current decisions about collecting e-books will serve future clients well.” She would also like to see e-books always published simultaneously with print editions and revised copyright laws to remove certain restrictions on printing and downloading the content.

Guelph’s Mr. Gillies is even more critical of the unfolding scene. “The e-book market is the Wild West. Anything goes, content disappears – even when you think you have rock-solid licences and contract law, it still disappears. … The thing that I really would be concerned about is not whether we’re buying content that is going to work well on a Sony or a Kindle, it’s what happens if we can’t access this content 60 years from now because it was in a format that went down when one company got bought out or went bust.”

While Mr. Gillies worries about these challenges, he also sees the e-book revolution as a big opportunity for the library community to take on a much-needed advisory role, at a time when the community is experiencing its own existential angst in having its informational authority usurped by Google and Wikipedia. With the scholarly e-book market still evolving, it seems that role will be in demand for some time to come.

Suzanne Bowness is a freelance writer and editor who recently earned a PhD in English from the University of Ottawa.

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