In my last two columns I explored what I called the “mess of ebooks” and explained what I want from library ebooks. In this column I want to discuss a possible future that could be good for libraries and for publishers. Right now everything is in flux. Publishers are understandably wary of selling digital rights management (DRM)–free ebooks to libraries, and the patron-driven acquisition (PDA) model some libraries want might not be sustainable for publishers. Libraries are struggling to buy books at all. The library ebook market is in a state of flux. There’s opportunity in chaos, though, and the opportunity here is to create a future that’s good for everyone, from publishers to library users.
Some librarians want to reduce what they pay for scholarly books to the absolute minimum. Their preference is what I have called radical patron-driven acquisition (RPDA): all books are ebooks and are only purchased via PDA. Writers and publishers still think of ebooks as books. These librarians think of ebooks as part of a media streaming service. For some libraries, I suppose, this approach might make sense, but I’m mostly thinking about research libraries. Some PDA is fine, but RPDA is a bad way to develop the bulk of collections at research libraries.
But there’s a larger question of whether the model is even sustainable for publishers. At South Carolina’s Charleston Conference last year, I attended a couple of sessions that are relevant here. In one of them, representatives from Oxford University Press and Stanford University Press discussed the unsustainability of PDA and short-term loans (STL) for their businesses. Libraries relying upon those strategies aren’t paying enough to make the books break even, much less be profitable. That huge savings some libraries are seeing is coming from book publishers. At some point the presses either have to go out of business (if they’re smaller presses) or just stop publishing so many books. That future writ large would be a nightmare for scholarly book publishers and the scholars who write and read those books for their work.
In another session, the heads of collections and of resource sharing at Utah State University discussed a study they had done about collection development and interlibrary loan (ILL) within the Greater Western Library Alliance (GWLA), a consortium of 33 academic libraries. They found that most of the libraries had significantly reduced their spending on books, although only one library in the system had adopted RPDA. As a result, the collections of the 33 libraries had become less diverse overall, with widespread duplication of core books and many fewer unique items. This had two effects. First, some of the libraries that had reduced the most had become significant net borrowers within the system (I couldn’t tell from the charts whether the RPDA library was the heaviest borrower). The head of collections questioned whether such heavy reliance upon other libraries without contributing to the system was sustainable and whether lending to them could continue. Second, many books that library users wanted weren’t available within the GWLA system at all because no library had purchased them. Because of that, the libraries had to go out of the system to get the books, which meant longer wait times and shorter loan periods for the library users.
I’ve argued before that no library is an island, and that’s the sort of thing that happens when libraries concentrate only upon their current users. Because of that narrow vision, even their current users are harmed. This future isn’t good for publishers or libraries. Every library focusing only on its own short-term interests could eliminate much scholarly book publishing over time, with detrimental effects on actual library users who can’t get books and scholars who can’t publish them anymore.
However, a future of mostly ebooks that are tightly controlled by publishers that deliberately restrict the possibilities of technology and the freedom of librarians to choose and own individual titles would be a nightmare for academic libraries and their users.
The head of collections at Utah State ended her presentation by saying it was time librarians got rid of the idea that PDA would solve everything or that libraries can just not buy books because they can always get them through ILL. The narrower the vision and the more radical the PDA, the less consideration of the larger library system upon which all libraries depend. And it seems that not purchasing some books because they’ll be available via ILL just passes the problems on to library users when they’re not ultimately available.
However, it’s also time for the fearful publishers remaining to understand that hobbling technology and creating “friction” for users of library ebooks isn’t something that librarians or library users want and is something that all librarians should be resisting until better arrangements are available. It’s already happening with some publishers. Although there are still some restricted JSTOR ebooks out there, most of them are available and meet my criteria for library ebooks. Meeting four of my five criteria are publishers that include Springer, Gale, and Bloomsbury. An email advertisement I received from Palgrave indicated that its new ebook platform will meet all my criteria. Things are changing.
Most book sales from scholarly publishers are still print books, just as most book purchases by libraries are still of print books. Publishers are hesitant to transition to new and still expensive models that could potentially undermine their bottom line, and the ebook options some librarians are demanding are unsustainable for publishers. Librarians like me are hesitant to transition to a model that allows only a bit of the promise of digital technology and gives so little control to libraries over their collections while still taking significant amounts of our budgets. We’re not in competition with each other. An ebook arrangement suitable for both publishers and libraries should be possible, just as the print book arrangement has been. With every new platform and every new negotiation, we’re creating the future of library ebooks. I’m hoping it’s a future that’s bright for everyone involved.