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The Complicated Story of Ebooks in Libraries

Computers in Libraries [June 2017] The Systems Librarian

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Digital technologies permeate almost all aspects of society. Libraries have been great beneficiaries of digital technology and have embraced its potential to amplify the impact of their services. Many aspects of library collections have shifted at least partially to electronic delivery or digital media. In the early days of this digital age, there was an almost naive view of its potential to reinvent libraries. It was easy to think of scenarios in which scholarly content and books, once digitized, could become instantly and universally available to any interested reader.

From Utopia to Brave New World

Today, we realize that digital technology has, overall, made a positive impact. However, it has also come with many restrictions and complications. Libraries once considered the management of print materials onerous and difficult to sustain, looking forward to the simplification that would be realized if these collections could be digitized. Once digitized, any item of content could be duplicated and distributed infinitely at almost no cost. These digital copies would last forever and not be subject to the wear and tear of printed materials. Surely, the digital age would lead to massive savings and benefits for libraries. However, in almost every respect, digital and electronic collections have proven to be more complex than their analog predecessors.

The complexity of library involvement with digital content relates to a large extent to the business and legal framework surrounding content ownership and publishing. These factors require many layers of protection and restrictions of content to ensure the rights of its owners or producers. Uncontrolled access to information would disrupt the business models that remain in place. While libraries naturally favor the most liberal access to information possible, we face a reality of providing access to information owned and controlled by others. Libraries must operate technical infrastructure that maximizes access while respecting the restrictions imposed by content owners. Unfettered access to information has not been a key outcome of the digital age.

Research libraries, for example, have seen a fundamental transformation as the realm of scholarly communications has almost entirely moved toward publication in ejournals. Access is facilitated through large-scale digital content portfolios and databases. But access to this vast body of scholarly content that mostly resides behind barriers for non-subscribers has resulted in libraries following complex processes to manage their growing collections of restricted resources. In the era of print journals, libraries implemented tedious and time-consuming procedures to acquire and renew serial subscriptions, to check in physical issues, to submit claims for missing issues, to route new issues to key researchers, and to eventually bind and shelve completed volumes. Large research libraries would dedicate large portions of their buildings to housing bound periodicals.

Today, the processing and housing of print journals have almost entirely been replaced by new procedures to manage collections of ejournals. Rather than bringing simplicity to libraries, electronic resource management has proven to be even more complex than the previous set of processes in place to manage print journals. The advent of epublishing also did not produce savings in acquiring content. Library budgets are stressed more than ever by the rising costs of subscriptions to electronic resources. Newer open access (OA) models of publishing promise fewer barriers to access, but may seem likely to just shift subscription costs to article-processing charges.

The Ebook Landscape

The digital age has likewise brought a complicated set of issues to the realm of books. Most publishers now issue new books both in print and as ebooks. In broad terms, digital technologies have not brought a radical transformation in the cost and availability of books to the public. While some authors opt to self-publish their works, the traditional publishers continue to dominate.

The levels of adoption and acceptance of ebooks remain modest. A recent Pew Research Center study ("Book Reading 2016"; observes that the majority of Americans read print books, with much smaller proportions reporting having recently read an ebook or listened to an audiobook. Only 6% read only ebooks or audiobooks. And the patterns defy stereotypes, with younger readers continuing to prefer to read mostly in print.

Public libraries have not seen the fundamental change in their core service of lending books as seen in the way academic libraries deal with scholarly content. Even after a decade of availability, ebooks have not made a huge difference in the levels of activity in the lending of print books by public libraries. Most public libraries continue to report steady, if not rising, numbers of circulation transactions for physical materials. They often offer some type of ebook lending service, but this tends to be seen as a new layer of activity and has not detracted from the number of physical circulation transactions.

Even though ebooks have not become dominant in public libraries, they remain an important and strategic service. It is essential for libraries to provide free lending services for those who prefer ebooks and may not be able to purchase them. Library ebook lending services had a rocky start, but have steadily improved in the numbers of titles available and in the technologies used for discovery, access, and reading.

The Ebook Infrastructure

A number of companies support library ebook lending services. Those such as OverDrive, bibliotheca (cloudLibrary), Baker & Taylor (Axis 360), and Odilo have worked with publishers to create large catalogs of ebook titles that are available to libraries and technology platforms to manage digital lending. These platforms use DRM to ensure that each lending transaction conforms to the library's policies as well as to the terms of the license.

The scope of content and technology infrastructure that supports public library digital lending services has continually improved over the last decade, but it still falls short in many ways. Contrary to the early phase of library ebook lending, most publishers offer their full catalog of titles to libraries, although the pricing and business terms may be less than ideal. Libraries continue to pay far more than retail prices for ebook titles, and some publishers allow each licensed copy of an item to be lent a limited number of times. The current business environment places heavy constraints on public libraries' digital lending services. Many libraries see long queues on popular titles, which means that patrons may have to wait for weeks or months to borrow an ebook. Libraries continue to advocate for publishers to offer more attractive terms to libraries for ebooks, but most publishers remain concerned that efficient and convenient library lending services would cut into sales in the consumer arena.

The technologies supporting the lending of ebooks, audiobooks, and other digital materials for public libraries has steadily improved, although many challenges remain. The early ebook lending services for a public library were often implemented through a link that connected patrons to the platform of an external provider such as OverDrive. Patrons would then search among the titles the library had licensed from that provider, select a title of interest, and then download it for reading on their e-reader, tablet, or smartphone. This model of ebook lending would generally expose the patron more to the external provider than to the identity of the library. Patrons might even bypass the library's website or catalog and go directly to the provider's platform to find and check out ebooks.

Developers of library catalogs and discovery services have made substantial progress in creating a more integrated approach in which ebook and print lending operate together more seamlessly. By loading records for ebook holdings into the ILS or discovery index, print and digital copies of a title will be displayed in the catalog, enabling the patron to choose either format, based on availability and reading preference. The major ebook lending providers created APIs that enable them to fully integrate with library catalogs in support of this more cohesive approach. In most cases, the actual delivery of the ebook may still occur through the platform or app of the ebook vendor instead of the library, leaving room for improvement for a fully library-branded ebook lending environment.

The New York Public Library, in collaboration with Libraries Simplified and with funding from the Institute of Museum and Library Services (IMLS), developed SimplyE, an app that makes finding and borrowing ebooks much easier. Patrons can check out and read an available title with just a few clicks, remaining within a library-branded experience. The app, which was launched June 2016, has raised the bar of usability for library ebook lending, although the availability of titles remains constrained by the adverse business environment.

Likewise, ebooks have become an important aspect of academic library collections, but with a much different flavor than seen in public libraries. While the public library ebook service is optimized for convenient access and cover-to-cover reading, ebooks in academic libraries tend to be used more for reference and research, with more of an emphasis on individual chapters. Academic libraries often acquire large packages of ebooks in bulk, selected according to discipline. With library budgets no longer able to support traditional librarian-selected collection building, many libraries now rely on demand-driven acquisitions in which patrons gain access to large collections of ebooks, and the purchase of individual titles is activated once they are used by a patron. But overall, ebooks represent a relatively small portion of academic library collection budgets relative to ejournal subscriptions.

Ebooks: The Bottom Line

The current reality seems modest in the context of the ambitious visions set in the early phase of the digital age. For example, in 2004, Google launched an incredibly ambitious plan to digitize all the world's books, dubbed Google Print (and later known as Google Books). This plan didn't necessarily mesh well with the legal limitations of copyright and with the commercial interests of authors and publishers. The project resulted in the digitization of more than 25 million books-far short of the 130 million originally projected. Rather than being able to provide full access to the scanned ebooks, only limited snippets can be displayed for those still under copyright. The Atlantic recently featured "Torching the Modern Day Library of Alexandria," by James Somers ( nology/archive/2017/04/the-tragedy-ofgoogle-books/523320), chronicling the project and lamenting its unrealized potential. From the library perspective, the Google Books project sparked the creation of HathiTrust (, an important collaborative large-scale repository of digitized books as well as other digitized materials produced via other library-led initiatives.

Although on a somewhat smaller scale, the Internet Archive has also been active in the digitization of books. This organization has provided leadership, technology, and funding to assist libraries in the digitization of millions of books. These partnerships between libraries and the Internet Archive have accelerated book digitization programs, but have not resulted in wholesale transformation.

Brewster Kahle, founder of the Internet Archive, recently published a post on EDUCAUSE Review titled, "Transforming Our Libraries From Analog to Digital: A 2020 Vision" (er.educause .edu/articles/2017/3/transforming-ourlibraries-from-analog-to-digital-a-2020vision). It articulates an ambitious plan for libraries and other organizations to collaborate to produce a decentralized approach for creating and providing access to many millions of books via digitization and controlled access. The strategy includes a variety of options for libraries to digitize books at lower costs. Kahle suggests a legal framework that depends on the current paradigm for print books, in which any copy of the book, whether print or digital, can be lent to one person at a time. If the digital copy is lent, the print copy would not be available and vice versa. It will be interesting to follow whether this new initiative gains traction and yields the universal availability to digitized books for which other efforts have fallen short.

The earlier predictions that digital technologies would enable libraries to provide unfettered access to the world's information have so far been only partially realized. Although the technologies themselves have enormous capabilities, that potential remains throttled by business and legal factors that seem unlikely to weaken. Electronic publishing and digitization efforts have brought fundamental change to the ways that libraries perform their work. Mastery of these technologies has become crucial for libraries. But rather than an abrupt digital revolution, libraries have gone through a digital evolution that has brought mixed results. While the impact of digital content on the library community has been profound, it has not entirely displaced involvement with analog resources and in-person services. I do not foresee a time when libraries work exclusively within the digital realm. Rather, the library community faces a much more complicated reality of managing more complex collections spanning all types of media, while seeking new avenues to unlock the potential of digital content and technologies.

View Citation
Publication Year:2017
Type of Material:Article
Language English
Published in: Computers in Libraries
Publication Info:Volume 37 Number 05
Issue:June 2017
Publisher:Information Today
Series: Systems Librarian
Place of Publication:Medford, NJ
Notes:Systems Librarian Column
Record Number:23093
Last Update:2024-06-13 01:44:43
Date Created:2017-12-08 11:39:18