Wednesday, November 11, 2009

E-Textbooks for Libraries, Anyone?

Seed pods on leafless black locust tree

So last week in a meeting I proposed the idea of spending some of our reference budget on student textbooks available electronically. The library's policy of not purchasing textbooks was partly because they went missing all the time. E-books would not be at the same risk. Simple, right? I thought this would be an instance of the library being really helpful to students. Of course, when I suggested the idea I did not know what it would mean to accomplish it.

To figure out how to make this a reality, I went to the college book store and asked if they knew which of the current textbooks are available online. The book store representative gave me the web site they use and said the books were listed there ( So I called the customer support number on that page, and the support specialist directed me to the two vendors they use, CourseSmart and VitalSource. I called both of them, and at both the customer service representatives seemed surprised by the idea, took my information, and promised to get back to me.

Within 24 hours, I received a polite email from CourseSmart expressing pretty much what I expected: "Currently, our business rules only allow for individual accounts that assign responsibility to one individual rather than multiple users for the same account. The publishing companies that partner with CourseSmart determine these guidelines." The email did mention that they would keep me posted if a library use model is developed in the future, however.

Also within 24 hours, I got a voicemail from VitalSource saying they were confused about my message and would try and contact me later in the day. I have not heard from them again, and the representative, who described himself in the message as technical support, did not leave a number for me to call back.

So, fellow librarians, this is so far a bust. Has anyone else had any luck? I thought I had reason to hope due to things like the downloadable audio book program now in effect at the public libraries in New Jersey, and the Nook's ability to share e-books. But maybe the situation is exactly what D.J. Hoek describes when he discussed music collections in a lucid article recently in American Libraries: Libraries are not necessarily considered part of the market when it comes to digital content, because companies are typically licensing directly with individuals and are not encouraging sharing.

We can change this, right?

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