Saturday, May 29, 2010

Ebooks: Questions and Issues for Libraries

Mountain laurel, in full boom last week

Last Friday (May 21) I was able to attend a fascinating Ebook Collections Symposium at Montclair State University. Collection development is not my specialty, so many of the ideas were new to me. I'll try to summarize what I encountered.

First, where should a library put an ebook? No one publisher has the rights to all ebooks, so everyone is developing different ways to offer them. This means that when libraries purchase ebooks, they are not always easy to organize or find. To make ebooks straightforward to find, there should ideally be many different access points, including the traditional library catalog.

It is important to keep in mind that librarians did not choose or design the format of a physical book -- the book developed as buyers, sellers, and content-producers gradually realized it was a fair, standard way of doing business. That product uniformity does not seem to be happening with ebooks yet, which leaves libraries in a bind as we work with platforms and interfaces that vary by vendor.

Another issue is the Subscription vs Collection model of acquisition. This is very similar to the Access vs Ownership choice that individual consumers face. With a Subscription model, acquisitions librarians would no longer necessarily need to be able to distinguish quality or have expertise in a field. All they would need to do is pick a "Business" package containing thousands of pre-selected ebooks, for example.

Libraries faced similar decisions when transitioning serials subscriptions from mostly print to mostly electronic. Will books parallel what happened with journals, in terms of titles being bundled into bulk packages instead of being purchased individually?

The publishers who attended the symposium seemed to prefer the Subscription model. Along with that model comes the increased possibility of patron-driven acquisition, meaning a library's user community can have much more direct influence on which books the library purchases access to. Taken to a logical extreme, one might ask at what point an administration takes away a library's book budget entirely, giving the money directly to students and faculty and letting them decide which books they want to access. With a Subscription model, the idea of carefully selecting titles and building a collection goes out the window.

In plenty of disciplines, however, a high quantity of ebooks is not always a priority. In medicine, for example, there are particular titles that are considered classics, and currency is extremely important. So it may vary by subject whether the Subscription model or the Collection model is better. This is messy when it comes to creating workable policies and processes for the library. Another difficulty with collecting ebooks by title instead of as a packaged collection is that there is currently no standard format for an ebook. Thus, when you buy a particular title as an ebook, you are still largely beholden to software or a hosting platform to provide access to it. EPUB is one format that seems to be getting a lot of positive attention lately, but things are by no means settled.

Learning about all this makes me wonder if a printed book now has a place of more prestige than ever. If someone (a publisher, usually) goes to the trouble of producing and marketing a printed book in this electronic age, that book seems particularly special. It is comparatively easy for an ebook to get a bit lost, but the books that take a physical form have attained importance by their very presence. Funny how that works.

No comments:

Post a Comment