I really like eBooks, which is something that surprised me when I won my Kindle last Spring in a raffle. In fact, just about every book I’ve read since then has been on my Kindle or occasionally on my husband’s iPad (I greatly prefer reading on the Kindle). When I first assumed I would hate reading ebooks, I’d based it on the experiences I’d had reading books on my computer through academic platforms like NetLibrary and eBrary. Reading on the Kindle is nothing like that – the absence of a glossy backlit screen is key for me. And the consumer ebook market seems to have exploded in just the past six months, even for those who are far from early adopters. When my dad got a Kindle in September I knew eBook readers had arrived. Even at Norwich I’m starting to get inquiries from patrons about whether they can read ebooks from the library on their mobile devices. There’s no doubt at this point: Ebooks do have a real place in the future of reading. Unfortunately, the way most people are using eBooks at this point completely bypasses the library, and this is what publishers and ebook manufacturers seem to want. Why wouldn’t they?

And the options that libraries now have for ebooks (in terms of content, interface, interoperability, etc.) are, by and large, piss-poor. I am deeply concerned about the fact that many libraries are increasing their collections of ebooks to the point where a huge chunk of their collection development purchases are ebooks. They provide a compelling model. In many cases, multiple students can read the same book at once. The books take less time and effort in terms of processing and take up no physical space at all. But the negatives, the uncertainties of where the ebook market is headed, and the current restrictions most ebook vendors have placed on their products often outweigh the benefits. That doesn’t mean we can bury our heads in the sand and ignore this huge trend, but I also agree strongly with Eli Neiburger at the Library Journal eBook Summit that libraries are screwed (watch his presentation from the Summit here and here).

This post is basically a stream of consciousness outline of some of the concerns that have been swirling around in my head regarding eBooks. I am far from an ebook expert. I don’t read contracts from vendors and I don’t know the ins and outs of the ebook market, DRM, first sale doctrine, etc. I’m just someone in charge of collection development for our largest School who realizes how little most librarians know about what we’re getting into with ebooks (me included) and who is really concerned about where things are going. If you want to hear about eBooks from people with deeper knowledge of the subject, here are a few people I can recommend: Sue Polanka, Jason Griffey, Eric Hellman and Tom Peters.

There are differences between eBooks for individuals and eBooks for libraries to lend

Buying a physical book versus checking it out from the library are not radically different processes. Both have very small barriers (leaving the house to get a library book or buy a book at a bookstore vs. waiting at least a day or more to get a book purchased online). Getting an eBook on my kindle is ridiculously simple. Click on the order button and it’s there. Heck, I can even preview part of the first chapter for fee to see if I want to buy it! And for the average person who just wants to read a book and be done with it, they don’t care about it working on other devices, any restrictions on lending, etc. Getting an eBook from a library is often a circuitous and confusing process; so confusing that libraries have to create tutorials on how to do it. This doesn’t even take into account the myriad interoperability issues when patrons want to actually read a library ebook on their mobile/ereader device. And the fact that libraries often can’t get eBook packages/options that provide the content our patrons want (especially in academic libraries). The worst part is that I can’t see this getting better in the future when it makes no financial sense for Amazon, B&N, Sony, etc. to make it easy for libraries to get and provide this content to their patrons. If the e-reader providers largely control the market for eBooks, libraries will be aced out.

What about ILL?

Interlibrary loan is an important part of what we do. Many consortia have cooperative collection development agreements where they will not duplicate collections and can borrow from each other. What does that mean when what they’re buying are ebooks? Only a small number of ebook vendors (actually, Springer is the only one I know of) allow for any sort of ILL, which means that the more our book collections go digital, the less we will be able to loan to other libraries or borrow from other libraries. That libraries are going in this direction without considering the impact on ILL are really shooting ourselves, our patrons, our profession, in the foot. Just try to imagine your library without interlibrary loan. I know I can’t.

Too many platforms, too little interoperability

In a perfect world, we’d have a collection of eBooks that were all accessible through a single easy-to-use, easy-to-search platform. Unfortunately, that doesn’t look like it’ll ever happen. The best we can do is to make our eBook collections findable via our library catalog, but that lacks the sophisticated search functionality of the individual platforms themselves. I teach our distance learners how to search for books in the catalog AND eBrary, even though our catalog contains the eBrary MARC records. Why? Because the search functionality of eBrary is better. eBrary can search the full-text of books and will often pull up a much better results list.

We get a lot of Gale’s literature reference works through Literature Resource Center. However, LRC doesn’t contain all of Gale’s literature reference works, and if you want to subscribe to those, you can’t get it on the same platform as the LRC. For example, we want to get Gale’s Children’s Literature Review since English majors seem to have increasing interest in research YA authors. Given the size of the collection (well over 100 volumes) and the direction that reference collections are going in, it made sense to look into getting it online. The problem is, we can’t get this collection through Literature Resource Center. Instead, we would need to catalog it and hope that users stumble upon it. We teach English students to search MLA International Bibliography and Literature Resource Center. We teach them about our print reference works. We teach students how to find books of criticism on specific works or authors in the catalog. Now, we need to somehow explain that while most of our reference collection lives on the first floor of the library, some of it is online and accessible through the catalog if you know the specific title of the work (since it’s not like you could do a search for Roald Dahl in the catalog and have the Children’s Literature Review pop up). This was difficult enough for me to explain in a blog post for librarians; just imagine me trying to explain all this to a bunch of Freshman in our EN 102 classes!

And how do you browse a shelf of eBooks?

Browsing is still an important part of the discovery experience. Every time I am helping a student find books on a specific topic, I will suggest that they look to the left and right of the books they are specifically looking for on the shelf to see if there’s something that didn’t come up in our search that would be a great fit for their research. There’s nothing like serendipity, and serendipitous browsing is still not replicated well online. And this becomes even more difficult to imagine replicating when you have a mix of ebook collections and print books. The collection becomes even more fragmented, even more difficult to browse.

DRM and crazy rules for “lending”

I always feel embarrassed when I have to explain to our distance learners that they can’t do any of the things they’d like to do with eBrary books. Our distance learners are often on the road for their work. Many are deployed in Iraq and Afghanistan and have Internet access for very limited periods of time. I even had a student on a submarine who had 1 hour per day to access the Internet and get all of the work that requires an Internet connection done. So when I tell them, no, you can’t download the books; no, you can’t print more than a small portion of any book; no, you can’t read them offline, I feel like a jerk. Why are we providing such a crappy product to our students that doesn’t meet their needs in any way, shape or form?

And of course eBrary says that their DRM is absolutely necessary to protect the copyright holders, but then you have a platform like EBook Library, where users can download books using Adobe Digital Editions where the document will simply expire after a predetermined amount of time. There are ways to protect copyright holders and still provide eBooks in a way that works for most users. From what I’ve seen (which isn’t a lot), eBook Library so far has come the closest to providing the sort of user experience my students need. But, of course, the more platforms you purchase or lease access to books on, the more different rules and restrictions they will have. And patrons won’t understand why you can download this eBook, but not this one, or why this one will let you print, but this other one will stop you at 5 pages.

Then you add in the nightmare that is ensuring that ebooks work on mobile devices and dedicated e-readers. There are different formats, different constraints. Then you bring in the issue of accessibility, which is a huge legal issue that too few librarians think about on a regular basis. And not knowing where the ebook market is going and what devices patrons will own in the future, makes it difficult to make any decisions now. But at the same time, can libraries afford to sit and wait until there’s greater clarity regarding the future of books?

What do we own and what does that mean?

When my library buys 20 physical books, we own those books. Those books don’t disappear unless a patron loses them (in which case we usually recoup our costs) or we choose to remove the book from the collection. We can ILL those books, we can put them on reserve, and there are no further costs for that book (unless it requires rebinding) beyond the initial purchase. But take a look at our eBrary collection. We pay lots of money each year for access to tens of thousands of books but we don’t own anything. We cancel our subscription and those books are gone. Books get added and disappear from our eBrary collection depending on their current deals with publishers, meaning that something a student used for their research two months ago may not actually be in our collection when they are looking to cite something from it.

Then there are eBook collections that libraries have perpetual access to. For those, we usually have to pay a platform fee each year to keep our access to that book. We can’t just mount it on our own servers. Some vendors, like EBook Library allow you to archive your own copy, but I’m not really sure what that means since it’s not like we can then email copies of it to students or just put it up on our server for anyone to download. If EBook Library fails, I’m not sure how we would make those books we “own” accessible. I know that some vendors belong to Portico and that Portico has now opened up a separate eBook preservation initiative, but the majority of eBook vendors we would want to work with are not currently members. I’m not an expert in this area by any stretch of the imagination and I’ve never read over every detail of the contracts we have with these vendors, but I am concerned that some librarians may not be thinking about the long-term preservation of the ebooks they are purchasing.

Patron driven acquisitions is not a magic bullet

I can’t tell you how many articles I’ve read recently about patron-driven acquisitions and the vast majority have been entirely positive, raising no concerns whatsoever about the practice. I’m not saying I think it’s a bad idea, but I don’t think it’s the magic bullet that many are making it out to be.

Collection development is a tricky game. It’s not just about building a collection for the people who use it today, but anticipating what people might want in the future. For example, my library had a rather poor Chinese history collection. Then we got a Chinese major, a professor to teach Chinese history, and the possibility of a Chinese studies major starting next year. Suddenly, in one year, I had to put a tremendous amount of my social sciences collection budget towards filling in that area. Right now at Norwich, Latin American history is not a hot area of study, but I still make an effort to buy some of the best works in the area. There has to be a balance struck. Obviously, you are going to spend more on areas that people are studying now, but you have to keep an eye on creating a balance that recognizes that hot areas of study change over time.

We actually did patron-driven acquisitions for our distance learners for a few years. Instead of doing ILL for our students who live all over the world, we purchased whatever they wanted. After two years, I looked at the books that had been purchased in the first year and found that only two of them had circulated more than that first time. We now have large collections of books on Zulu warfare and the military history of Australia because two students were interested in those subjects, but will those ever get used again? It’s highly unlikely. Just because one student is interested in a specific book or topic doesn’t mean that others will be. I’m not saying that purchasing some books that students want makes sense, but having seen what a 100% patron-driven acquisitions model looks like, I don’t think it solves any problems.

Look, I get it. We’re in a tough spot. We’re trying to do more with less. We’re trying to justify continued funding in the face of the fact that such a small proportion of what we buy gets used NOW. But I’m not sure that moving a large portion of our acquisitions budget to patron-driven acquisitions is a responsible decision in the long-run. I do think putting some of a library’s collection budget towards patron-driven acquisitions is an excellent idea and that’s what we’re experimenting with this semester with Ebook Library. But I still feel in my bones that it would do a disservice to the long-term health of the collection to rely solely on the taste of today’s patrons. To me, cooperative collection development is a model for sustainable collection-building that makes much more sense.

I don’t know where ebooks, patron-driven acquisitions, or e-readers are going. When I read posts like Andy Bukhardt’s about the horseless carriage vs. the ebook, I wonder if reading online in the future will not resemble in any way what we do and use for it today. It seriously hurts my brain to even imagine what reading will look like 10-20 years from now. What I do know is that the more I read about ebooks and the future of publishing, the more concerned I get. And the more I talk to librarians about this the more I realize how little many of us think about any of the larger issues (beyond content and perhaps accessibility) when we think about getting eBook collections. I actually saw a forum post in response to my American Libraries column about the Terms of Service regarding Kindle books that they didn’t sign any agreement when they bought a Kindle for their library. Sigh… People with very little understanding of these issues (and I include myself in that group) are making big decisions for libraries. Ebooks can no longer be the realm of knowledge of just a few experts; we ALL need to understand the current issues, keep up with new writing on the subject (from librarians, educators, technologists and the publishing/e-reader/mobile device world), and scan the horizon to gain some sense of where things are going. Otherwise, how can we possibly make collection decisions about these materials? Whether we want to make those decisions or not, they are going to be continuously foisted on us over time. I had a faculty member last semester ask if we could get the Encyclopedia of Associations online instead of in print. Our patrons are going to increasingly come to us with e-readers that they got for the holidays or their birthday, wanting to see what the library is offering that they can read on their shiny new device. Whether we want to face it or not, we owe it to our patrons and the future of our libraries to learn as much as we can about this stuff so that we can make decisions that best serve the patrons and the institution.

Who are your go-to eBook experts? Who would you recommend that others read on the subject? I’ll add those recommendations to the Library Success Wiki.