I’ve run into a few problems with library ebooks lately that have made me even more skeptical of them as complete replacements for print books in libraries. Since skeptics of library ebooks are sometimes considered Luddites or reactionaries, I should go ahead and add the disclaimer that I really like ebooks that I don’t acquire from the library. I did a quick calculation of the books I’ve read since mid-January, and of those 33 titles, 27 were ebooks. Some of them were several hundred pages long, but reading them on a good ereader was generally a pleasant experience.
And then I turn to the library offerings. The first thing I notice is that it’s difficult to replicate that pleasant reading experience for the most part, for a number of reasons. Reading on a good ereader is like reading a well-formatted tight reading copy of a codex in several ways. The font and background can be adjusted to suit your preferences. Sometimes that can be done with library ebooks, sometimes not. Occasionally, they can be downloaded and reformatted, but mostly they cannot.
When we turn to library ebooks, what we find is a vast array of substandard choices, and the lack of standardization means that readers have to figure out and adjust to every new platform. That might be okay if all the platforms were excellent, but they’re not. All of them seem to have accidental or deliberate ways to make the reading experience poorer.
This standardization problem has mostly been solved by academic e-journals. Most e-journals offer their articles in PDF format. Sure, there are still journals that don’t consider reading on a small screen, like the ones that still use two-column formatting, but for the most part if you download an article, you know what you’re getting every time, just like picking up a book. Whereas with library ebooks, you’re never quite sure what you’re going to get.
There are always possible problems. Consider a recent examination of Oxford Scholarship Online (OSO) in this blog post by a philosopher at UC-Boulder that was discussed by Inside Higher Ed. He notes a number of issues with OSO, including formatting problems and oddities with handling footnotes and PDF downloads. Oxford University Press (OUP) responded in the comments, but the gist of the conversation was frustration with the platform from several other scholars. The problem is compounded since Boulder, like many libraries, stopped collecting the print editions of the books in OSO, so the only option for the user is the OSO copy.
And then there are all the other platforms. Ebrary is a popular one. I’ve never managed to read an entire ebook on the website itself because the reader always seems slow and clunky. It’s true that some Ebrary books can be downloaded into the easier-to-read Adobe Digital Editions (ADE) application. The first time you can do it in 18 easy steps. After going through those 18 steps, you may then download the book into ADE for two weeks, which is considerably less than the checkout time for most of the print books in my library’s collection for any class of library users.
Some platforms are easy to read on but have other common limitations. I love the content at Past Masters, for example. It’s great to have access to standard critical editions of philosophers in their original languages, as it offers with Kant, Nietzsche, and others. However, unless you want to read online, it’s still got the printing and download limitations of the other platforms.
Other platforms have different arbitrary and unnecessary restrictions. Few allow people to just download a book and be done with it, so nothing is going to be easy, even though we’re paying for this stuff. Go into a JSTOR ebook at my library, and you get this notice: “There is no printing or copying allowed.” Because no one would ever want to copy a sentence to paste into an article they’re writing. Or maybe it’s just a limitation of its Flash reader, of which my first thought was, “Flash? Really?”
Supposedly you can get an online PDF, but when I downloaded it and tried to open it, I got a notice that the document failed to load. Maybe it was that I didn’t have the FileOpen plugin, whatever that is. I could go back and, no, wait, I don’t care anymore. Not another 18 simple steps. If I didn’t absolutely have to read this book, I would abandon it, and I did. It’s not me, JSTOR ebooks, it’s you, or if it’s not you, it’s the publishers.
So we have multiple reading platforms that are sometimes problematic in their own right, formats that aren’t suitable for all types of devices, restrictions on the numbers of simultaneous users, the inability to lend ebooks via ILL, and other inconsistent restrictions on printing, copying, or downloading library ebooks that vary from platform to platform. The ebook landscape for academic libraries is a mess. And what’s more, it’s a mess for which we’re paying.