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Interlibrary loans constrained by licences for e-books

Publisher licences make it difficult for libraries to share books by interlibrary loan, hampering small universities most of all.


Electronic books, for all of their convenience and versatility, are threatening to put an end to a longstanding and cherished tradition at academic libraries: interlibrary loans. As libraries try to grapple with the problem, some are experimenting with new ways to share electronic monographs. “With e-books we are in a whole different world,” said Brent Roe, executive director of the Canadian Association of Research Libraries.

When purchasing a print version of a book, libraries own the copy and are free to lend it to whomever they wish. But electronic books are most often licensed to, rather than purchased by, libraries. Licensing agreements usually permit a specified number of multiple users to view an e-book at once, giving libraries more flexibility to lend books to their own students and faculty while alleviating some of the space crunch that libraries face. However, the licensing agreements commonly prohibit interlibrary loans because e-books are so easy to copy and share; publishers fear that unlimited sharing would quickly erode their sales.

Libraries at smaller institutions, which depend heavily on interlibrary loans, are feeling the pressure acutely. “A lot of the times I find that when a location has the e-book [rather than print], they will refuse to loan,” said Jeff Creighton, electronic resources librarian at Toronto’s Canadian Forces College. “That happens more and more frequently.”

Recently he requested a book through interlibrary loan from six institutions across Canada and all turned down him down. One said its only print copy was reserved for course readings; the rest had electronic versions they weren’t willing to lend.

“I’m convinced this will become more and more common in the future,” said Mr. Creighton. With just 200 full-time students, CFC maintains a small, highly specialized collection of military books. But its students do research in much broader areas, and CFC has always depended on interlibrary loans to support them, Mr. Creighton said.

Even if the terms of a licence allow for interlibrary loans, technical considerations can make it difficult. “We don’t have any mechanism to supply an e-book to somebody outside of our community,” said Mary Lehane, manager of the resource-sharing department at York University Libraries. The university, she said, would have to give outside borrowers access credentials and a login to view its electronic holdings. “That’s the catch. How do you do that in a secure way?”

But the landscape is changing, albeit slowly. “People are agitating for this kind of access,” she said. “At some point it’s going to give.” Groups such as the Rethinking Resource Sharing Initiative, a U.S.-based organization, are among those advocating for change. Ultimately, much of the work on this front will have to be done by large libraries, she observed, since smaller institutions lack the clout to do so.

One way around the problem may be through membership in national and regional consortia of libraries. Increasingly, these consortia are licensing access to digital books for their member institutions. Consortia usually pay the list price for an e-book plus a multiplier, allowing users at several institutions to access the book. Consortia licensing has broadened access to e-books, but the number of available licences is still limited and e-books can’t be loaned to non-members.

Some library groups are experimenting with new types of short-term lending agreements. Novanet, a consortium of Nova Scotia academic libraries, signed an agreement in November with EBL, a vendor of academic e-books. Under the terms of the pilot project, Novanet pays a publisher a fraction of an e-book’s list price for every short-term loan (usually seven days) that it makes. Once Novanet makes more than five short-term loans of the same book, it must purchase a licence at the full list price.

“The model is working well for us,” said Bill Slauenwhite, Novanet manager. “We get to stretch our dollars out.” Novanet’s member libraries jointly contributed $100,000 to access about 16,000 electronic titles from 28 publishers.  As of early March, Novanet had spent about $20,000. It had loaned “many, many thousands of books” and purchased licences for just five, Mr. Slauenwhite said. Its goal is to purchase as few licences as possible.

But he cautioned that the model won’t work for everyone. Novanet has always been a tightly integrated consortium with members sharing all of their print holdings with one another. E-books “caused quite a large problem for us,” Mr. Slauenwhite said, because they couldn’t be shared among members. Novanet wasn’t willing to pay the multiplier usually charged for consortial licences because its members don’t typically purchase more than a single copy of a book.

However, publishers and vendors aren’t likely to sign the same type of lending agreement with large consortia whose members usually do buy several copies of the same book, he noted. What’s more, the Novanet-EBL agreement doesn’t allow lending to institutions outside the consortium and, notably, it doesn’t include books published by very large academic publishers. “It’s a small step but we are hoping it’s proof of concept,” said Mr. Slauenwhite.

Novanet’s model, often referred to as patron-driven acquisition, is significant in another way. Rather than having librarians select the books that a library purchases, as is the norm, libraries make the complete publishers’ catalogues available to patrons, who then select what they wish to access and ultimately determine what a library will license or buy.

“I suspect that patron-driven acquisition will become more important to academic libraries as time goes on,” and it may eventually replace the need for interlibrary loans, said CARL’s Mr. Roe.

This relatively new model may have another benefit too. “The dirty little secret in libraries is that there’s a heck of a lot of books that may have a very small number of uses,” he added, and this pay-per-view model gets around that. But, it requires libraries to closely monitor licensing expenditures to ensure they don’t exceed their budgets.

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