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On March 16, I attended the 2012 North Carolina Serials Conference at UNC-Chapel Hill, along with a number of folks from ZSR. I’m going to write about one session that really interested me, because I think it’s worth a fairly in-depth recap.
The session in question was the closing keynote address by Kevin Guthrie, who was the first employee of JSTOR (back when it was a one-person operation) and is a co-founder of the non-profit organization ITHAKA. Guthrie’s presentation, “Will Books Be Different?” examined the world of electronic books. He began with a brief history of the transition from print to electronic journals, emphasizing that the process was generally driven by the academic world, in the sense that publishers built their electronic journal models with the academic world as the intended audience for their products. Guthrie points out that the electronic book, particularly the scholarly electronic book, faces a very different set of circumstances. Library budgets in the 2010s are even tighter than they were in the ‘90s and ‘00s. Libraries have to figure out how to do more with fewer resources. At the same time, everyone is connected, and the scale of digital activity supports massive commercial investment by publishers. The academic world is now reacting to publishers, rather than the other way around.
The consumer web is influencing the availability of scholarly electronic books. It is on the consumer web where companies are taking advantage of new network and digital technologies in transformative ways, unlike in the ‘90s when electronic journals were developed. The Google Books Project and its audacity have made it actually seem possible that all books will eventually be digital, which is exciting, but that does not mean that scholarly books will be a priority of digital publishers. Commercial companies are becoming increasingly focused on what gets accessed as opposed to the intrinsic research value of sources. Furthermore, search and discovery capabilities could prove critical to what book content gets supported by e-publishers.
Licensing issues are also different in the world of e-books than with e-journals. At a basic level, libraries tend to want to own books, rather than license or subscribe to them. We have gotten over that tendency with journals, but, for many librarians, books somehow feel qualitatively different. Also, Digital Rights Management (DRM) technologies can be difficult to manage. In addition, there is the question of what is the interaction between individual access and institutional access, when dealing with remotely accessible and downloadable e-book content. Consortial purchasing is also complicated by e-books. Historically, library consortia have purchased books to share, rather than each library purchasing their own copy. How do libraries share e-books with each other without violating licensing or access terms? Or, does the pricing model for e-books change such that consortia no longer make sense at all?
We are seeing the development of new versions of the Big Deal, like we have had for e-journals for years. There has been consolidation among publishers, and libraries are being offered access to more content at a package price. However, it is hard to measure good value. Usage statistics are generally far lower for books than for journals. Libraries may buy a big e-book package and have very little use, which can either indicate that the package is not worth it, or the use could justify the costs. We’re still in the early days of e-books, so no real benchmarks for what constitutes substantial use have developed.
Having said all that, despite the complications, libraries are buying more e-books. However, Guthrie argued that libraries are ahead of our users with regards to e-books. He pointed to a recent e-book usage survey which found the 53% of undergraduates prefer print books to e-books, which was a higher percentage than any other university population! We need to think about what resources our users need and how they use them, particularly where e-books are concerned.