Dan D’Agostino, our newest contributor, is collection development librarian at a large research library. He has a particular interest in how new technology is impacting libraries. Although not a techie, he’s the happy owner of a Sony PRS-505 that he’s especially grateful for on crowded commutes. Welcome, Dan! D.R.

imageOver the past several years, university libraries have collectively built very large and very expensive collections of e-books that nobody reads.  These collections, often including the very best and highest demand academic titles, not only remain unread but may in format already be obsolete. They may never be read.

Instead of focusing on books downloadable to e-readers or smart phones, academic libraries have created enormous databases of e-books that students and faculty members can be read only on computer screens. The result, as shown by studies like the JISC national ebooks observatory project, is that these collections are used almost exclusively for searching for information—scanning rather than reading.

With a vigorous, searchable Google Books on the horizon, could academic libraries suddenly find themselves and their e-book collections completely bypassed by their students and faculty? The New Year finds both academic libraries and the big commercial publishers that serve the academic community in a state of paralysis, on the one hand knowing that their onscreen e-books are not reaching potential readers and on the other unable to embrace the exploding popularity of e-readers and smart phones as platforms for their content.

How did it come to this? In order to explain it’s first necessary to understand that the world of academic publishing and academic libraries, probably the single biggest sector of the current e-book market, is a strange parallel universe in relation to the rest of the e-book world. And in this strange universe, two fundamental laws currently govern all activities.

The First Law of the Scholarly Publishing Universe

The first law governing the scholarly publishing universe is that scholarly publishers are monopolies. If you’re only familiar with trade publishing this may seem counterintuitive. After all the trade publishing industry is full of publishers competing with one another for the consumer’s limited funds. But in the scholarly publishing universe publishers don’t necessarily provide books or journals that compete with those of other publishers.

Instead, they often feed the university the unique information it must have to stay on the cutting edge of research. For example, not all journals are equal. In order to support research at their universities, academic libraries must subscribe to certain high-status journals. Publishers, knowing that this makes them de facto monopolies are able to inflate the subscription prices for these key journals to astronomical levels (the phenomenon often referred to as the Serials Crisis.

The Second Law of the Scholarly Publishing Universe

The second law of the scholarly publishing universe might be called “The Library Director’s Law of Irresistible Attraction.” That law goes something like this: digital versions of high status journals are irresistibly attractive to library directors. These directors know that making them available to their students and faculty keeps everyone happy with the library, in turn securing both the library’s budget and the director’s future.

The two laws working together have meant that the big commercial scholarly publishers like Reed Elsevier and Springer Verlag have been in the unique position of forcing libraries to subscribe to packages containing all their e-journals. In other words, we’ll sell you the few you really need, but only if you take the thousands we publish that you don’t need. Since library directors had to have those few key journals, they agreed to take the whole deal.

Ebooks and the Digital Industrial Complex

Thus a symbiotic relationship was created between academic libraries and the big publishers, what I like to call the Digital Industrial Complex. Given their constant state of insecurity, libraries began buying as many digital resources as possible, regardless of quality or demand (and as we’ll see with e-books, format).

For their part, publishers were only too willing to provide new digital products for academic libraries to buy, again, without any understanding of the actual demand for them (and in a sense, they didn’t need to know whether or not students and faculty wanted these products since they knew that libraries would buy them anyway). And so, having secured, apparently in perpetuity, subscriptions to their entire ejournal lists from academic libraries, publishers began to work on the next frontier, e-books.

A few years ago publishers began offering packages of e-books to academic libraries. Since logic dictated that any library director worth his or her salt must be able to show their university presidents that they already possessed large collections of the Next Big Digital Thing, they were quite happy to buy these ebooks in large packages (those who hesitated risked “luddite status” and perhaps their jobs). Again, not buying the individual titles the university would actually need, but buying everything the publisher offered.

The publishers were offering e-books in the state of the art formats of the day, HTML and PDF. Academic libraries also began investing in very expensive platforms, like ebrary, for mounting these e-books. Publishers, academic libraries, and even the vendors of these platforms were all counting on one thing, that students and faculty would want to read e-books on computer screens—and even if they didn’t, well, that was the only technology available, so readers would simply have to adapt. But then readers had a choice.

Ereaders and Mobile Devices

Just as studies were beginning to show that readers will not read extended pieces of text on computer screens and would use these e-book collections simply for searching, not reading, the Kindle and the iPhone arrived. These devices have shown that dedicated e-readers and smart phones are e-book platforms par excellence; they make e-books work. But unfortunately for academic libraries they don’t work with the huge e-book collections they’ve amassed in HTML and PDF (at least not very well).

The result being that as the ownership of e-readers and mobiles begins to increase across campuses, the library’s e-book collection is in danger of becoming a very expensive white elephant, underused at best and perhaps already obsolete. For their part publishers are not rushing forward to convert these e-books to ePub so that they can be read on e-readers.

As one rep for a major publisher told me in December, their company is split internally over the risks involved in allowing their content to be easily read on e-readers. And so for the time being they have no plans to either retro-convert the ebook collections already held by libraries to Epub, or to start providing Epub for new titles.

In the end though, there may be a couple of ways to bring these ebooks into the 21st century and make them as popular on universities as ejournals have been. And one solution, in an acronym, is DRM…

To be continued…


  1. But what is going to happen when tablets/laptops with new display technologies like electrowetting, lcd transflective or interferometric modulation hit the shelves? That would pretty much turn collections into a more readables ones. Sure, there still would be lots of uneeded items inflating suscription package prices; could the open access movement find an ally in a new generation of ereading-ready computers, leaning towards open platforms?

  2. Contrary to the opinion of many, the PDF format is not a bad format for scholarly work; in fact, of the current choices I think it is the best format, and I’m not so convinced that PDF wouldn’t be the best choice for all books except straight-text novels.

    The real problem is the lack of appropriate reading devices. Contrary (again) to a vociferously stated view, LCD screens are not ideal reading screens but PDFs currently are best viewed on one. I believe that in the not-too-distant future there will be a convergence of an excellent reading screen with PDF. When that happens, academic libraries will be able to boast how they foresaw the future and grabbed it before anyone else.

  3. For the present, the best solution for academic/research libraries might be a system offering a means of circulating e-books much as libraries do with print titles — and as many public libraries are doing with e-books. Library vendors of electronic resources should develop an Overdrive or NetLibrary analog which would enable members of the university community (i.e. students; faculty) to download e-books for a finite loan period, to the device of his or her choice.

    Speaking as a former, and sometimes current, graduate student, I can say anecdotally that it is likely just as important for academic/scholarly works to be portable, as it is for recreational reading matter. I would even take this argument a step further and suggest that it may be even *more* important that truly dense, technical content be downloadable to an e-ink, or other small device, so that it may be ported to a location where the human reader may have some serenity (i.e., the sofa) and control over lighting conditions, because the human reader’s eyes are going to be on it for a longer period. Especially if the book is in a language of which the user is not a native speaker.

    Academic publications in e-format do carry with them many advantages. Among them: They cannot easily be vandalized. They cannot be lost, stolen or dropped into a mud puddle. Unfortunately, right now they are likely to be difficult to access (in some instances being available only in specific locations or even on specific workstations; and/or requiring sometimes byzantine authentication procedures); difficult to use (navigation options vary, downloading for offline use is likely impossible, and printing the entire text is a copyright violation); or both. And all of those variables differ from vendor to vendor.

    I agree with Mr. D’Agostino. Having e-books in the library collection should not be an end in itself. E-book software developers need to take usability into account, even if it means harmonizing with the competition. If e-books become more usable (=*readable*), vendors might even benefit from increased individual sales. It is not uncommon for a scholar to like a particular library text enough to obtain a personal copy. What’s good for electronic publishers’ library customers will in the end be good for the electronic publishing industry.

    Presuming that there is no Digital Preservation component in any of this, a library’s e-books *need* to be used, or the money is not well-spent.

    Mary O’Dea
    Head of Acquisitions
    The Newberry Library

    *Just keeping my hand on the pulse of electronic reading.*

  4. Nice summary of the state of e-books in academic libraries. It’s a snap shot though. The environment is changing (painfully slowly, but changing).

    The savvy library directors understand the need for malleable content that can accommodate varying display environments. The problem you describe really pertains to libraries who purchase e-books on a traditional ownership model. Many librarians are comfortable with buying e-books on a leasing model. We know the shortcomings of e-books. By leasing, we aren’t committed to long term preservation of the e-book content and software/hardware required to read it. We simply cancel a subscription and then subscribe to the next format.

  5. Seems to me that there are several different issues involved here, that need to be teased apart. These include the likelihood that a title will be read regardless of the medium (prob. Zipfian distribution), whether skimming or searching is somehow a less legitimate use than “reading” (whatever that is), whether people would prefer reading on screen vs. dedicated devices vs. paper, etc.

    My sense is that there isn’t a single answer for all uses of all electronic titles, but that as a first-order approximation, academics treat books differently from journal articles, and that there are huge differences between disciplines.

    And there is certainly technology available to publishers to measure the use of their materials. Morgan Claypool is an excellent example.

  6. Some reflections:
    1. Usage of our books has multiplied hugely since we launched them online (for access via PCs). How do I know? Pre-online (2000), we used to sell around 400,000 print editions a year, mostly to libraries. I guess a good proportion of these were never read. Today, we sell 250,000 print editions annually and deliver >1 million downloads, mostly via subscriptions to our ebooks bought by libraries. So our experience suggests that e-books bought by libraries are used and used a lot more frequently than the printed editions ever were.
    2. ePub: Scholarly publications are often chock full of illustrations, charts and tables which ePub can’t cope with (they run off the screen). I’m sure more scholarly publishers will happily produce ePub editions as soon as the technology can cope with our content. However …
    3. … I’ve yet to have one of our readers ask for our books to be available via an e-book reader. Come to that, I’ve yet to have a librarian ask either!
    4. Paul Pival asks – “are there any scholarly publishers that sell downloadable ebooks” – well, we’ve been offering this option since 1998 and I know lots of others sell downloadable ebooks too! (I’m assuming here that a PDF file counts as an ebook)

  7. This description seems rather dated to me. It may have been this way 4 or 5 years ago when we did buy some high quality reference collections and a few subject collections but for the past 2 years (at least) we have only bought individual titles mainly on reading lists with multi-user access. Students and staff like them because they are never out, lost or hidden. We also prefer platforms that allow download to laptops. When there is sufficient demand we will also insist on download to e-book reader platforms, as yet we haven’t seen this demand in the UK.

    For myself I don’t want an e-book reader, I just want two devices, one I can put in a pocket and one big enough to read, write and surf on. If this can be merged into one device I’ll have one of those.

  8. Ebook Library offers ebooks from scholarly publishers (and others) that are downloadable to a handheld device and can be purchased through a demand driven acquisition program. This is our provider of choice. This approach addresses the problems that Dan discusses. I agree his description seems a bit dated. And, at least from looking at our invoice, I would disagree with the statement, “very expensive platforms, like ebrary.”

  9. I have worked to develop access to ebooks for many large libraries in the US and abroad. I know from experience that this article misses a simple and important fact: collections of ebooks were demanded by the libraries, and for good reasons.
    In the early days, all we heard was “give us title-by-title purchase…we must have it, we won’t buy collections, we won’t go down the road of journals again!” It was a message bordering on religious fervor. Okay, so that’s what we built. Technology companies and publishers were approached to enable title-by-title selection and purchasing. Systems were modified, publishers were asked to tie the release of electronic editions to the print, efforts were made to include notification of new titles into approval and new title announcement programs…our competitors followed suit and the customer-demanded solutions were created and released. Then what did we hear? “Do you offer any collections?”

    Almost without exception, the same libraries that demanded title-by-title selection and purchase requested collections of electronic books, and for two good reasons: 1) Retrospective collection development is always necessary when building a new collection – any collection without critical mass is useless. 2) It proved to be inefficient and prohibitive to engage in title-by-title review and selection for most libraries, just as it is with print. So the request came to create collections, and include new title notification and automatic purchase into existing mechanisms used for print. Perfectly sensible.

    Many customers still wanted to be reassured that purchasing electronic books would look very much like purchasing a print title. However, in day-to-day collection development, they had no intention of buying a single e-books any more than they would purchase single print titles.

    A question I would ask is, why has the measure of collection success suddenly changed for electronic books? Print collections are not used much at all. Many large ARL libraries see fewer than 50% of titles ever circulate. Many titles that are accessed by students only circulate once. Is that a good value?

    Re: the comment from Mary O’Dea, “…a library’s e-books *need* to be used, or the money is not well-spent.” Has this ever been the criteria for judging the value of the print collection? In fact, the tradition has been all about satisfying a just-in-case strategy that has done little more than fill shelves with printed material that is not used by patrons. Indeed, a new day of reckoning is upon us, and how collections will be valued will change. Of course, this is a gateway to a much deeper and perhaps more important debate.

    For now, I would suggest that if libraries do not meet patron expectations by offering materials in the formats they expect to find, the institution will struggle to justify its existence.

    My recommendation: if your collection is now being valued based on what is being used, there is only one real option- you must transition collection development to the patron base. Systems must be adopted that allow for the discovery of titles prior to purchase, and allow for near instant delivery to the patron. There are many options that come close to this ‘patron-driven’ model, but the only way to provide a truly well used collection is to pre-filter what the patron has to choose from, allow for discovery, and then deliver the thing upon request. You will then acheive at least one use per purchase, which is a lot better than any existing print collection.

    And one final comment…I don’t know what’s expensive about any of the online ebook solutions. Ebrary costs next to nothing for their platform, and books are priced competitive to print. EBL offers a number of options to deal with costs. In any case, whatever is spent on platform fees are a tiny fraction of what would be spent on maintaining a local system. What does it cost to store and maintain print collections? Studies from the University of Texas suggest electronic books are an order of magnitude less expensive to maintain. There appear to be a number of double standards in play. It’s really time to reconcile and normalize the print vs. e-book perspective.

  10. Regarding the real question: are ebooks used? Toby Green has already eluded to the fact that ebooks are in fact used—but that topic is one that can be explored to everyone’s satisfaction by statistical analysis. I know ebooks are used at an impressive and growing rate, but as we have already seen within the comments, we’ll quickly be debating what constitutes a “use” rather than getting to the heart of the matter.

    For now, I would like to submit that the onus is on the library to promote the services they purchase. I can think of countless examples where libraries have bought similar collections and experienced vastly different usage. The reason? Marketing. Yes, there I said it…the libraries that actively promote their services to patrons will experience a faster and deeper rate of adoption of electronic materials than those that do not.

    Part of a disciplined plan to promote a new resource would include research before allocating funds to gauge the demand. I believe it’s always a good idea to determine if my customers want something before attempting to sell it to them. Patrons are no different. In addition to informing the purchase decision, such an approach helps set expectations and limits the risk of wasting money on a pure experiment. The ancillary effect of developing acceptance (buy-in) among library staff is an obvious bonus.

    Local promotion is more than just putting records into the catalog. It means expanding the channels by which patrons can discover local resources, and making an effort to remind the students that these things exist. It means engaging services that allow disparate resources to be brought together and cross accessed easily by researchers. The means through which new vitality can be imparted upon academic content have never been so plentiful, and who better to sort this out than libraries and their support structure?

    To be fair, I do not believe that the content aggregators or vendors do a sufficient job in providing support to libraries to achieve awareness of newly acquired resources. Sadly, I believe libraries must do more to illustrate their value. Part of that will come through shameless self promotion and generating quantitative data that demonstrates success. Rather than require librarians to become marketing or network professionals, I suggest they find a partner to assist them in this effort…but be prepared to pay for it. Such an undertaking is complex, requires specialized knowledge, and has the potential to yield great results—every service that fits that description comes at a premium.

  11. First, there’s an assumption here that scholarly research in the legacy formats (that is, paper) was not about skimming. And yet, for two masters and a little doctoral work, I was told that expert skimming was how scholars survive, and it was a reading behavior I adopted on my own.

    Second, even at Peanut U, as I dub where I work, where the marketing of e-materials has been rocky at best, eBooks out-circ paper books 2 to 1, and the rate of usage is going up for e and down for paper.

    It is absolutely true that reading an entire eBook on a computer screen is a drag, but apparently, they are satisficing user workflows. (Our ebrary collection does the best of all, though I think Credo will do better when faculty are made more aware of that collection.) When we have better solutions for the device issue, then usage will blow sky-high.

    I believe in leasing for other reasons. Anyone remember the whole ownership-versus-access argument… for networked CD-ROMs? Gosh, for just a few more dollars, we could own those CDs forever! Um, yeah, right. Anyone use one of those CDs lately? Or even in the last decade? For that matter, most of us are saddled with a legacy format that takes up a whole lot of space and isn’t being used… and devoured many trees in its production. In the end, we are “leasing” information anyway; it all goes away.

  12. I’m always bemused by the claims that Big Deals give libraries a lot of things they “do not want or need”. This assumes that librarians were perfect at choosing material in the past, and that our collections weren’t full of material we thought we wanted, but no-one actually used (despite the evidence of the 80/20 rule – ie that 80% of use comes from 20% of the collection).

    It also implies that no-one uses the extra material acquired. This is not true. Several years ago, when our first Big Deal was up for renewal I looked at our usage stats, to see if we could just keep the most “popular” titles. Two things came out – that there were plenty of titles we hadn’t had print subs for, that were substantially more used than ones we did. And that to get back to the same number of titles we had before the Big Deal we would have to lose access to many titles which had seen more than 100 article downloads for the year. Not a huge number, but a decent one if you think how much that would cost to replace in DocDel. So we kept the Big Deal.

    The other comment I would make is that PDF was (and is) a popular format because people don’t read on screen. They print long things out and read them that way. Publishers liked that because the printing cost was carried by the reader, not the publisher. If anyone really thought that users would only read on screen they would have only created html versions of the journal.

    And if eBooks are born electronic, not scanned, (which most are these days) who’s to say that they can’t be converted to an e-reader format? In fact, given the amount of PDF out there, who’s to say that some bright 18 year old isn’t working on a PDF to iPhone app right now, so that conversion can be done on the fly?

  13. I’d just like to follow up on David Groenewengen’s comment, “And if eBooks are born electronic, not scanned, (which most are these days) who’s to say that they can’t be converted to an e-reader format?)

    Indeed, most eBooks have been ‘born digital’ for some time– and in fact, why limit that content to being ported to another eReader format, the hallowed ePub or anything else?

    With the advent of print-on-demand technology, this equation is coming full-circle.

    Not only will titles be created, distributed, and archived electronically, but the user will be in a position to order up a print copy whenever they like.

    This will help create the truly “format free” world many of us have been predicting. In the meantime, the competition among the ebook providers is a benefit to everyone, and there’s no way to test this technology except over a period of time, and in the real-world.

  14. Why is the MP3 the default audio format?

    Because it is small fast and easy to create and share, it is not the best quality and easy to pirate but in the end it serves the purpose of the user. It works on any device and can even be a ring tone. For better or worse the PDF is the default document format. If you ask any user what digital format they would like to receive a document over 500 words to read 80% will say PDF 19% will say MS Word and 1% will come up with some format that none of us have ever heard of and they don’t count.

    As publishers we have to concern our selves with the wants and more so needs of the users. We have to meet those needs or the users will find someone else who can. All a user wants in an academic setting is to search for something – find it and then use it for whatever they are working on. They don’t want to blog about what a cool book they found they found they don’t want to put it on their Facebook page what they do want to finish their work in the most efficient way possible and then move on (they may want to bookmark their info for future reference but don’t need a suite of Gadgets and Apps to do it because there is Zotero and a Bookmark button in every browser).

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