After three columns in a row about the ebook situation for libraries, I thought I was finished with the discussion, but then I got an email from an ebook vendor. He pointed out that his ebook publishing platform did all the things I had said I wanted from library ebooks and asked, very politely, why, then, hadn’t my library bought any of them? Here is my answer. It probably doesn’t apply to every library, but it applies to some of them, especially some of the larger ones.
The bulk of English-language scholarly books come into my library via an approval plan. The approval plan is paid for out of general funds. In addition, subject-based selectors are allocated funds to purchase subject-specific materials, including books or ebooks that don’t come on the approval plan for whatever reason but that the selectors believe should be acquired.
As the selector for philosophy and religion, I am responsible for purchasing any ebooks or ebook packages that are focused on those subjects. For reasons I’ve made clear, I generally don’t. One reason is because anything I purchased would almost always be duplicating something we already paid for and own in print. Doing that for anything other than high-use titles from very important presses for my subjects would be an irresponsible use of the library’s money. That’s why many of the ebook packages in the humanities that we do purchase can be considered niceties. Yes, it’s good that we have some of them available, but if something had to be cut, they would be on my list.
Given that my subject budgets aren’t designed to purchase the bulk of the books coming into the library, I also couldn’t afford to duplicate most books in ebook form as well. If there were some print+ebook models available (for ten percent more or something like that), I perhaps could. But since ebook prices are generally equivalent to the printed book prices (and for very understandable reasons), that’s not possible. My library would be paying twice for the same intellectual product, and there’s not enough money for that, so the choice usually has to be one or the other.
To switch to ebook only and avoid duplication for my subjects, I would need to ask for changes in our approval plan as well as significant changes in my budgets. It’s likely that we could work something out, but what would that look like in practice? I would need to target individual publishers within the approval plan and then try to block books from those publishers only within specific subject ranges. I couldn’t just block the subject ranges themselves, because many of the books that come on approval have no ebook equivalents. Blocking publishers might not even work. Of the areas I cover, religion is probably the trickiest. I almost never want all the scholarly books from a particular publisher because many are out of scope for the study of religion here while also being readily available at the nearby Princeton Theological Seminary library. It makes more sense for me to stick to the approval plan and supplement as necessary.
Another question to consider is whether my users would want to abandon print books entirely. I recently did an informal poll of one department during a faculty meeting. I asked, “Considering the types of ebooks we currently have at the library, how many of you would prefer using ebooks rather than print books for your own scholarly work?” A small number of people raised their hand. The consensus seemed to be that the ideal would be for us to purchase both the print and the electronic. That would be ideal but impossible, even for budgets as relatively generous as my library’s. If 85 percent of the faculty want to keep print books, we’re probably keeping print books.
But even if we wanted change, for the entire system to move to ebooks as the preferred medium for books would be difficult. Without most scholarly ebooks giving all of the benefits and freedom of print books plus unlimited access, the incentive to make a large change isn’t very strong. For the largest research libraries to move away from print books and approval plans for the bulk of their acquisitions would mean moving into a system that is often less flexible than the world of print books. And as long as the ebooks vary significantly in flexibility and availability among various publishers, trying to make the change for half but not for the other half is probably a bad use of resources.
A full-scale transition from print to electronic books for the largest libraries might not work as long as there’s so much variation among publishers. Some offer ebooks, some don’t. Some sell individual ebooks, some don’t. Some provide access through other vendors, some don’t. Some allow DRM-free downloads, some don’t. From my perspective, unless I can purchase hassle-free individual ebooks I’m usually not interested. Until all (or even almost all) publishers offer them, the transition to ebooks might be slower than it could be because the cost and effort for a mixed approach are too great.