Sharing Ebooks on the Razor’s Edge

Posted Tuesday, February 25, 2014 - 11:17
Medieval-style chained library at the Royal Grammar School in Guildford, UK. Photo courtesy of Royal Grammar School

Academic libraries have a big hairy problem: Over the past decade or so, their budgets have shifted from buying materials to leasing them. Journals are the main budget killers, with some subscriptions—so vital to the scholarly life—costing $30,000 annually per title. Even the wealthiest university libraries can’t buy everything. In truth, they buy less and less.

But there’s more than price restrictions hampering the ability of any given academic library to contribute to the intellectual life of its campus. There are also licensing restrictions. Many academic ebook publishers have parroted e-journal licensing, limiting access to physical IP addresses or tuition-paying patrons or employees of a university. In other words, some publishers explicitly reject that mainstay of research: interlibrary loan (ILL).

There are legitimate concerns on all sides, of course. Scholars need access to books. If ILL is a casualty of the digital age, more than libraries will suffer. Learning and research are the lifeblood not only of the academy, but also, by and by, of commerce.

Publishers, on the other hand, want to sell books, and fear that ILL will cannibalize sales—although the inability to borrow doesn’t magically generate money in the pockets of wannabe ILL patrons. Is the only alternative to chain the electronic book to the virtual shelf, like medieval libraries of old?

The Greater Western Library Alliance of 33 academic libraries may have hit on something, however, by wielding the library equivalent of Occam’s Razor to shave its members’ collective ILL woes, according to the February 17 Chronicle of Higher Education. Occam’s Razor is a scientific principle that solutions to problems should be as simple as possible. Think the revolution of the Earth: The arc of the Earth traveling around the sun is elegant in its simplicity compared to the overly complex celestial spheres of an earth-centric cosmogony.

With simple solutions in mind, the Greater Western Library Alliance has joined the ranks of library as software developer. Its product, the work of program developers at Texas Tech University and the University of Hawaii–Manoa, is called Occam’s Reader. It pilots an approach, in as straightforward a manner as possible, which allows universities to share their ebooks without giving away the store.

What does “simple” look like in this case? In brief, the ebook is placed on a secure server (itself a new tool for many university libraries). The borrower gets an email and instructions for logging into the website. The patron can’t download the borrowed ebook to a device or print it. At the end of the loan period, the book is deleted from the server.

Perfect? No. Good enough, not just for scholars, but for publishers, too? Maybe. Academic publisher Springer, which is already something of an innovator, has signed up for the pilot. Let’s give credit where credit is due. 

It bears repeating: The old ecosystem of publishing is broken. The publisher isn’t at the center of the universe anymore. The new ecosystem is yet to be invented, and Occam’s Reader is a good start. In the meantime, hold onto this simple truth: ILL is both a business necessity and a stakeholder expectation. 

JAMES LARUE is a library writer, speaker, and consultant. Email him at jlarue[at]jlarue.com.