E-books and academic libraries: an American perspective

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A student approached the Reference Desk last week asking about an e-book that she had found via our library’s catalog.  “Can I download it?” she asked, and gestured to her flash drive.  She wanted to download the e-book as a PDF so that she could read it later from home or on the subway, much the same way she does other documents, such as journal articles from the Library’s databases and course readings from Blackboard. Because this particular e-book was available via ebrary, however, this was not an option.

The Brooklyn College Library, like many other academic libraries across the United States, employs multiple e-book models.  But like most libraries at public institutions of higher education faced with increasing student enrollment and shrinking budgets, the majority of our e-books come from large subscription packages (ebrary, EBSCO) because they provide the biggest bang for the buck.  The content itself is unstable, however (think of the Netflix model in which movies appear and disappear), and digital rights management (or digital restrictions management, as it is also known) imposed by the vendors limit the options for how students access and download these e-books.

E-book collections created by publishers such as Springer and Palgrave are an improvement in that they allow students to easily download the entire book as a PDF, but we still have to purchase large collections with the understanding that only a few of these titles might be used by our students.

Patron driven acquisition (PDA) allows our students to choose which e-book titles they want, but access is limited to one student at a time.

Individual purchasing of e-books ensures that we only buy what we think our students will need, but the process is expensive, onerous, and again access is – in most cases – limited to one user at a time.

Given that academic libraries are rightly at the forefront of the movement to provide low-cost or free course materials to our students, how can we promote the use of our e-book collections when entire books might disappear at any given moment, the options to access and download the e-book are restricted, and certain e-books can only be used by one student at a time?

It is thus with great interest that we look to new e-book pilots such as those being conducted at the University of Manchester Library.  I believe the best way forward is for libraries to leverage their purchasing power and work directly with vendors and publishers.  Given the large sums of money academic libraries spend each year on e-book content, shouldn’t we – on behalf of our students – have a say in how that content is delivered?

Helen Georgas, Assistant Professor, Library, Brooklyn College

photo credit: Manhattan view via photopin (license)

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