Playing Hard to Get: Purchasing and Reading E-Books

Last week I sat in on the Springer LibraryZone Virtual eBook webinar and it was a very interesting discussion.   Many libraries (especially academic) are investigating and collecting e-books in lieu of some printed text.  How much they are collecting and the nature by which they to the selection process seems to vary according each library, their type, size, consortia involvement, usage data, etc. 

The reasons why and how much they bought all varied but the frustrations, questions, and concerns the faced were very similar and seemed on the minds of every librarian regardless of their library, type, size, consortia involvement, etc.  So what were these concerns?

DRM- Digital rights restrictions.  It seems that every publisher has different rules and while some things can be put on electronic reserve others cannot.  While some things can be shared through ILL or on Blackboard others cannot.  This is not only a particular frustration among librarians but also patrons who aren’t as savvy with copyright issues.  The patrons get frustrated with DRM restrictions for library materials and they are even more frustrated with the restrictions for e-books they buy themselves.  Their view is, “I bought, don’t tell me how I am allowed to use it.”  I am not saying this is always the right or wrong thought process, but it is their thoughts and to a certain extent librarians.

Access – How do people find your e-books was a common question among the librarians.  The e-books publishers don’t always have decent MARC records (if they have any) that can be easily added to the catalog.  So the cataloger must work to add them into the catalog, yet more and more patrons really don’t use the catalog these days.  They would rather randomly search the library’s website or Google.  Some librarians mentioned universal search engines on their web sites as helpful but few mentioned those as having all the answers for finding e-books.  The impression that I got was universal search engines help but aren’t the magic bullet to finding your e-book collection.

Platform confusion – Every publisher’s platform is different and this causes a lot of confusion for finding the book in the platform, accessing it, reading, printing off a chapter, not to mention linking to it within catalogs and Blackboard.  People (librarians and patrons) don’t want to think.  They want a standard look at feel when selecting an e-book and reading a chapter.  They want to print of a paragraph, chapter, or section but some platforms only allow you to see one paragraph at a time on the screen, others disable printing, while others allow the chapter to printed off in PDF.  See how confusing this is for a student who goes into one book reads the chapter in PDF then goes to another book on another platform and wants to print out that chapter to read offline.  This type of problem of platform variation was seen a lot with e-journals in the beginning.  There are still some differences in e-journal sites but many are starting to gradually adopt a similar look and feel these days.  One can only hope e-book publishers might do the same.

Package vs. Single Title – There is some frustration and confusion over how publishers bundle (or don’t bundle) their e-books.  Some expressed how it is frustrating that if they bought the titles they want/needed ala carte they would be paying a lot more than if they bought them in a bundle.  Why is this a problem?  There were people who expressed anger at paying for titles in the bundle that they didn’t want.  Others expressed frustrations with publishers who allowed their content to be on independent or outside platforms only to yank their books from those platforms later.  McGraw Hill has been doing this recently with their textbooks on other reseller platforms such as Ovid and StatRef, interestingly not all of their pulled titles are even available on a McGraw Hill platform, thus leaving the title unavailable online. 

Content – This is one of the biggest frustrations among librarians and was a recently discussed on liblicense-l and Medlib-l.  Just because you bought the textbook doesn’t mean that it is the same in e-book version and vice versa.  It can be something as simple as no page numbers on the electronic version (making it difficult for people to cite a reference in their articles).  Or it can be as extensive as missing chapters in the printed volume that are only available online via a special subscription service or code intended for individuals (not libraries).  If the missing material is in electronic form it means the library may not be able to get the content via ILL, depending on that publisher’s copyright policies.  This phenomenon is also happening in reverse, online texts not having all of the content of the printed text.  Therefore, a library buys the e-book for for curriculum reasons and the teacher wants to link out to a specific chapter on Blackboard only to learn that chapter is not available electronically, it is only available in print.  At least in this scenario libraries can get the printed chapter via ILL.  Many feel this is a classic example of buyer beware or bait and switch since very few publishers disclose these caveats when somebody is buying the printed textbook or e-book.   There were some librarians on Medlib-l who now refuse to purchase certain publishers based on these questionable editing practices. 

There was some discussion about e-books on Kindels, Nooks, iPads, etc. but it appeared that most librarians weren’t currently collecting e-books for specific readers.  They still collected e-books based on need and for curriculum reasons.  It seems that many still have patrons accessing them on desktops or laptops.  So while it seems that many in the publishing world are focused on the various readers, it appears that librarians are focused on content and accessibility, NOT the readers.  Which makes things difficult.  It kind of reminds me of dating and the old saying, “Men are from Mars and women are from Venus.”  Perhaps librarians and their patrons are from Mars and publishers are from Venus, we both focus on different things in our relationship making communication and partnership difficult.  Librarians would like to purchase e-books but feel frustrated by backbone issues like accessibility, content, etc. while publishers would like to sell e-books but are focused on exterior issues like readers.  It probably makes each group (librarians and publishers) feel like they the other is playing hard to get.

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