The Ebook Elephant in the Room
Ebooks began as an item of curiosity but have grown to massive importance for both academic and public libraries in only a few short years. On Saturday morning, a panel of librarians presented the facets of the ebook challenge to an overflowing audience in “The Ebook Elephant in the Room.”
Sue Polanka, of Wright State University in Dayton, Ohio, started with a presentation of the unique approach OhioLINK has taken to providing universal access. “Our goal was to guarantee unlimited simultaneous use, lifetime use, and access across our consortium,” Polanka explained. OhioLINK specifically negotiated with major publishers—ABC-CLIO, Gale, Oxford University Press, Sage, and Springer—to purchase each year’s entire front list, rather than specific individual books. By locally uploading the books using eXtensible Text Framework (XTF), they were able to achieve their goals, and the resulting collection contains more books than Project Gutenberg.
However, she said, there are some drawbacks to the XTF format. “It requires too much time and energy,” said Polanka, “and it’s not fancy.” OhioLINK is working on developing a new model that will maintain the core mandate of unlimited access while adding new features.
Alene Moroni, from King County (Wash.) Library System (KCLS), discussed how her system has made adjustments to fund ebooks. “As public librarians know, when you have to buy a new format, that doesn’t mean you can stop buying other things.” KCLS began by spending just a few thousand dollars on ebooks but has increased spending by 60% in each of the last three years, to the point where they now spend $2 million annually. That funding came from the existing budget, initially through a 10% cut to materials spending, but now through a mandated 50% cut to the budget for databases.
To manage this change, a KCLS working group took a hard look at database groupings in areas such as business and genealogy to see where duplicate services could be cut. The group took patron demand into account through click counts, the number of searches, and time spent on searches.
Linda Di Biase, of the University of Washington, explained how her system has evaluated the effectiveness of purchasing ebooks based on patron use. In the last few years, they have conducted three studies with various ebook providers. In each case, they set aside several thousand dollars to spend on ebooks that would be automatically purchased based on a triggering number of patron activities or short-term loans. Di Biase was firm in her conviction that “it’s okay to duplicate purchasing of ebook and print books, if you can afford it.”
Anne Silvers Lee, of the Free Library of Philadelphia, discussed how ebooks have impacted collection development from her perspective as chief of the Materials Management Division. “In print, people are still asking if libraries should offer ebooks,” Lee said, “but in reality, that ship has sailed.” She said that across the country, 76% of public libraries are providing ebooks to patrons. However, many library systems, including her own, have not updated their collection development policies to address ebook purchasing.
Lee and Polanka are dissatisfied with the “one copy, one user” model. Lee indicated that her library system is experimenting with Freading, which allows unlimited access to all the titles in its catalog. Freading doesn’t include the Big Six publishers but does have a healthy roster of smaller publishers. Lee is also concerned about the digital divide and pointed out that even with these ebook developments, she must still serve a population in which 40% of patrons do not have internet access at home.
Several panelists noted that most vendors do not include ILL in their agreements and that the “one copy, one user” model continues to be a barrier. Polanka encouraged librarians to advocate as part of a consortium, but “for now, just keep asking.”