Tuesday, May 6, 2014

Behind the Scenes: Ebooks in Academic Libraries

The following is based on the presentation EBooks: Are Your Students Getting a Return on Your Investment? given at the Association of Independent School Librarians Annual Conference on April 25, 2014 by Kris Reed, Assistant Dean of Libraries, Texas Woman's University.

What is an ebook?  Most people will agree that it is a digital object that contains both text and graphics and is the result of integrating a book into the electronic environment.  Ebooks can be displayed on a computer screen or a handheld device.

Most of us are familiar with the ease of downloading an ebook onto our Nook, Kindle, or iPad, but how do these ebooks become accessible in an academic library?  What goes on behind the scenes to bring ebooks to users at TWU?  
It is not a simple task, since we do not download individual titles to handheld devices.  Instead, the library provides network access to all ebooks, which means they are all available to our authorized users 24/7 (although you do not have to download ebooks to use them, we do make this possible.)

The first born-digital ebook, Afternoon by Michael Joyce, was published in 1987 to floppy disk.  The first ereader to come out, the Rocket, appeared in 1998.  It was around then that libraries began providing ebooks to patrons, although these were almost entirely scholarly in nature and not downloadable.  Downloadable fiction and nonfiction did not appear until 2003. Beginning in 2011, smartphones and tablets were equipped with ereading capabilities.  Now ebooks are everywhere, and actually outsell print books in many markets.  We can even produce our own ebooks!

When a library adds printed books to its collections, the process follows this path:  Select > Purchase > Receive > Catalog > Process (get shelf-ready) > Circulate.  The steps are straightforward and orderly.  Since ebooks are virtual, adding them to a library’s collections, in theory, involves a slightly different pathway:  Select > Acquire > Load > Manage > Access.  It would be easy to establish a workflow for adding ebooks if this path could be consistently followed, but in reality there is no typical process path for adding ebooks to the collections of most academic libraries.  This is partly due to the lack of industry-established standards or processes to follow.

For instance, a library might select an ebook before loading it, and then access it before paying for it and managing it internally.  Or a library may not select an ebook at all (as with large packages or bundle purchasing)--just load, manage, and provide access to it.  Because there are so many possible scenarios for adding ebooks to our library, it is often difficult to manage them.  All of the same process steps must be followed, no matter the order, and nothing can fall between the cracks. This uncertainty makes for a difficult and inconsistent workflow.  Bringing an ebook to users takes the work of several library staff members.

Libraries can choose to purchase their ebooks from publishers, aggregators, or subscription vendors.  Unlike print materials, ebooks necessitate a signed license agreement before content is made available to users.  This agreement states who is authorized to use the ebook; who actually owns the content; what is acceptable and unacceptable usage; the limitations of use; the library’s archival rights in relation to the contents; and the costs and ongoing fees involved. Multiple platforms (interfaces) are available, so libraries must consider this before purchasing.  The more interfaces, the more differences there are for users to navigate, which is why most libraries settle for only a few platforms.

Ebook ownership is different for a library than for an individual.  When the library purchases a print title, it is ours to keep; with ebooks, the library may or may not own the materials on a permanent basis.  Libraries can usually either subscribe to ebooks (purchasing access for a specified period of time) or buy perpetual access to them (meaning we own the ebook). This is why you might see a book in our online catalog one day, and then the next it disappears.  Some libraries, such as ours, also purchase ebooks on a title-by-title basis.  It is more economical, however, to purchase ebooks through collections, subscriptions, content bundles, databases, or consortiums, or obtain them via open access, lowering the overall cost per book.

In most academic libraries, ebooks can be found in the nonfiction, reference, and reserve collections and are usually written by and for the scholarly community.  TWU Libraries' ebooks are purchased to support the curricular and research needs of our users.  Typically, academic non-fiction ebooks are more complex than  others due to the charts, pictures, and other graphics they contain.  This is a challenge in epublishing because it is more difficult and expensive to produce these types of ebooks as opposed to those containing only textual content.  Librarians rely heavily on ebook statistics to measure their return on investment.

Though ebooks do present challenges to academic libraries, they also have inherent and substantial advantages over print materials.  
With print books, a library physically receives them, catalogs them, and provides space to house them.  Ebooks are activated rather than delivered, and their cataloging records (metadata) are imported into the library’s online catalog in bulk, requiring no staff involvement.  Physical materials need to be processed (labeled and prepared for checkout), while ebooks are delivered through a website or URL, authenticated for TWU users, and made immediately accessible.  Ebooks are circulated by downloading them to either a handheld device or computer, so there is no need to hunt for them in the stacks.  Shelves are not required to house and organize ebooks because they are stored using cloud technology.

Print books are read from cover to cover, while most students using our ebooks search through the content by keyword to find exactly what they are looking for.  This is referred to as dipping.  Today most new books are produced digitally, have no print replica, and are enriched with features such as faster navigation, links to additional materials, highlighting and note taking capabilities, and keyword searching.

As for the monetary aspect of ebooks in academic libraries, ebooks are more expensive than print books.  One reason for this is that they are purchased for multiple users, which raises the cost by up to 200% or more of the print price. In addition, there are some publishers who refuse to sell ebooks to libraries because they see it as a loss in their print revenues.

As you can see, providing ebooks to users is more complex for libraries than it is for individuals.  Although books in electronic format can simplify and enhance the research process for students, it can also introduce access and technological issues. Although it is easy for students to use a library ebook, it is important to remember that each ebook at the library requires the effort of many library staff members working behind the scenes to make its use effortless for our patrons.

If you experience problems using our ebooks, please don’t hesitate to contact us for assistance.  Rapidly evolving technology, a competitive marketplace, new suppliers, and new features integrated into products for your use--for all of these reasons, 
change is a constant in libraries and in the ebook world.  We are here to help you navigate it. 

~Kris Reed

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