April 23, 2018

The Mess of Ebooks | Peer to Peer Review

Wayne Biven-TatumI’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.

Wayne Bivens-Tatum About Wayne Bivens-Tatum

Wayne Bivens-Tatum (rbivens@princeton.edu) is the Philosophy and Religion Librarian at Princeton University and an adjunct instructor at the University of Illinois Graduate School of Library and Information Science. He blogs at Academic Librarian.

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  1. SimonSays says:

    a hand, knowing English and light and I’m pretty well set for any English language book. The same is probably true in French & Chinese; though not tested these yet.

    With E books get ready for the roller coaster of what is needed for what format and what limitations per each. Fine for most when all set; but moving among vendors and the rollercoaster finds new loops and twists.

  2. Rick Anderson says:

    Is anyone suggesting that ebooks should completely replace print books in libraries? I’m asking sincerely — I can’t of anyone I know who would support that proposition, but I don’t pretend to know everyone.

    • That’s a good question, Rick. I don’t know anyone calling for it, but in some respects it’s already happening. In the column I mentioned that the University of Colorado-Boulder no longer purchases print books from OUP because they can’t afford to do that and subscribe to OSO. I wouldn’t be surprised if lots of libraries are doing that because OSO is so expensive. That’s not the “complete” library, but if you’re a philosopher that’s a pretty significant number of the books you’d probably want to read. Does your library subscribe to OSO? And if so, do you still get print OUP books?

      Cambridge offers a similar package, and Springer, and several others. I would be interested to know how many libraries are subscribing to these publisher packages and still buying the print. Given the tight budgets of so many libraries, I suspect there are plenty of libraries giving up the print for the ebooks for many publishers.

    • Rick Anderson says:

      We don’t subscribe to OSO — but if we did, it wouldn’t stop us buying OUP titles in print altogether. Our general policy is that ebooks are our default format, but that we buy print when there’s a compelling reason to do so or our patrons express a preference. I can’t imagine saying that we would never buy print if the e-version is available.

    • Kathleen Kern says:

      “Our general policy is that ebooks are our default format” sort of says it all. The column did not seem to suggest that libraries would get rid of all print, only that academic libraries are starting to preference electronic over print where available. The e-book market is a mess. Why are there no standards and apparently little user testing? Is this purposeful friction? Is this really what libraries think our users want out of e-books or are we so eager to provide e-books that we overlook the shortcomings?

    • Tom Moore says:

      Rick, that certainly seems to be the direction things are going. I would be interested to know the stats nationwide for the proportion of e- to print. My library certainly has many items in e-only.

  3. Debbie Morrorw says:

    This column expresses my concerns and frustrations very well. My library has made a huge investment in access to resources in digital format — online full text of journal content and ebooks. By and large we don’t duplicate with print, though we will upon specific individual request. The periodical content in general is pretty well-behaved (though link resolution to take users from indexes to full text is a constant challenge); but ebook user interfaces and usage restrictions are far, far behind. My gold standard is SpringerLink ebooks — pricey, but no DRM nonsense, just easy to download and read PDFs after authenticating. Others that we have invested in provide so many barriers to reasonable and effective use for academic purposes, I keep wondering what the “tipping point” will be — when will there be some change for the better, and what factors could possibly lead to a change from the current muddled mess?

    • I’m glad it’s not just me.

    • And yes, Springer is an exception to the platform problems. My main problem with Springer is that they won’t sell individual ebooks on their platform, only through other ebook platforms with more restrictions and less user-friendliness.

  4. Stephanie says:

    It is also a mess over which, in some packages, we do not have control of the content. Not only editions but actual titles can be replaced in some packages, making it difficult for faculty to elect to use an e-book from the library for their course. It’s a cable TV model – you buy the sports package, and it has the Tennis Channel, which you love, but 3 months later, the Tennis Channel is replaced by the Golf Channel, and you have zero interest in golf, but the provider will not refund your money. This is not true of all packages, by any means, but it is the case with some. At least when you buy a print book, you get to keep that title.

  5. It occurs to me that library books in general are always going to be less than ideal. Even when ebooks weren’t a consideration in my library, people often used ILL to get a copy of a book my library already had – but they wanted large print, or softcover, or… Or, people preferred buying some books because they didn’t like to read books with labels all over them or crumbs in the pages from the previous borrower. I agree with you regarding the current state of library ebooks, and that we must keep asking for better. I believe they will keep getting better – but using any library book, even on my own device, will probably never be quite like a book I purchase and personalize according to my own tastes. Ultimately, it seems to me it depends on the goal. If I know I cannot recreate an ideal reading experience for every user, than perhaps it does make sense to make as much material available as possible within the budget I have – say, choosing OSO over individual titles from OUP – while I keep working to improve the experience.

  6. What is happening with ebooks happened with journals beginning in the late 80s when they first started coming out on cdrom, both with quantity and cost.

    We subscribed to the cdrom databases because they gave us more titles with integrated indexing for less money. Gradually the standards for publishing grew into PDF and the internet grew up so the access to the articles became more user friendly. Because we could not afford both print and online we began to cancel the print copies as online became the access method of choice.

    The same pattern is beginning to happen with ebooks. Collections like Ebrary Academic provides access to thousands of books that would normally be only available at the richer/larger libraries. Now we are waiting for better the standard for ebooks to catch up and we will be buying less print in order to afford online. It is not always a decision we make over night but we grow into it due to supply and demand.

    • Sorry the second to last sentence should read “Now we are waiting for the standards for ebooks to catch up…

  7. Here is what I would love to see tried as a solution to this problem. A library could try to streamline this mess to their own advantage. Require all new freshmen to buy a tablet. Then, require all new freshmen to attend an e-book training workshop before starting classes. Only buy e-books from vendors that will allow full-book downloading: Ebrary, Springer, and whoever else. Use the workshop to teach students what Ebrary’s “14 Day Checkout” rule means, and that they are always free to go back and re-download a title on day 15. (These are the sort of little details that are causing so much confusion). Avoid subscription packages that toss in questionable publishers and older content, and focus on individual title purchases that can be owned perpetually – focus on quality, not quantity. Avoid vendors who require chapter-by-chapter downloading, watermarks, purely online reading, or apps that crash. In this way, a library could go beyond simply purchasing content, and could work to build a culture of e-reading.

    • That’s quite a fantasy world you’re living in, Brian! In the libraries in which I’ve worked, we’ve been hard-pressed to convince the administration to squeeze the library in at all during freshman orientation (let alone get the students themselves to attend). In addition, I’m not a fan of requiring students to buy a piece of technology with a short-term planned obsolescence.

      Fortunately (for my patrons) I work in a very small conservatory library so at the moment I don’t have to worry on my patrons’ behalf, about these issues. But at my previous position, a large research library, decreasing budgets were definitely leading the decision-making process towards these ungainly e-book collections.

    • Overcoming administration apathy about creating e-book training sessions is only a “fantasy” if you accept that it is. You are succumbing to a self-fulfilling propechy: If it isn’t likely to be done, then why try?

      Also, consider that the cost of an iPad or Android tablet is on average only somewhat more expensive than the cost of one textbook for one class. Planned obsolescence might be relevant for certain add-on features, but each year the tablets are getting better. A PDF file is readable on any tablet, and will presumably continue to be well into the future.

  8. Heidi McGregor, JSTOR says:

    Thanks for this timely discussion. I think we all read this and thought, on some level, it would be great if ebooks could be available in the same way that journals are now. Standard approaches, unlimited usage, site-wide access, the ability to re-use content. The good news is that many ebooks do work this way. Over 17,000 (about 60%) of the books in the JSTOR program offer unlimited concurrent use; unlimited DRM-free PDF downloads; unlimited printing and copy/paste; and interlibrary loan for ebook chapters. In effect, these ebooks work just like the journal articles on JSTOR, and these are being used on many campuses today.

    But of course, then there are the other books – the ones that have the experience you described, which is universally less than ideal. We agree that we can all do better here. We are taking in library feedback all the time, sharing this with publishers, and considering what changes can be made.

    So, thank you for your comments and the opportunity to clarify that your experience is not the only experience or even the most common one. We agree they should all be good though.

  9. Jeroen Bosman says:

    It is indeed a bit of a mess. But it does not have to be that way. If you regard each book chapter as something comparable to a journal article it is easy to see how things can be fairly standardised and easy to work with: a seperate PDF + ePUB for each chapter and front/back matter, without any DRM. I always try to avoid any DRM restricted books. Publishers that DRM all their books just do not get any orders. It strikes me that publishers with a lot of journal experience are much less afraid to offer DRMless books. If every chapter has its own metadata it is also easier to list them in Scopus,WoS and the like. Publishers that are ahead in this will see that our patrons find their offerings easier to find, use and, yes, share, just as with PDF journal articles. That, in turn will trigger librarians to buy more from that publisher. World total book budgets can only be spent once. In my view the money will go to e-books and book packages that conform to the principles outlined above. I only ever by DRMed books if a patron specifically requests that title, twice, after I have offered non-DRM alternatives.

  10. It seems the problem you’re running into is mostly in the academic space with products such as Ebrary, JSTOR, OSO, and the like. Not that public libraries haven’t run into this problem with our more academic offerings like GVRL but the consumer products work well. Reading an OverDrive or 3M book via the App on a tablet or on a black & white eReader has generally been a pleasant experience in terms of formatting, etc.

    These products have their own problems that extend well beyond simple format and usability (DRM & ownership chief among them) obviously but they’re nearly at Amazon or B&N levels for ease of use now.

  11. Wayne,

    “..the easier-to-read Adobe Digital Editions 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 Adobe Digital Editions for two weeks”

    And if it’s Adobe DE4, then you also get unwanted spying along with those 18 steps:


    But I also wanted to point out that indie authors and small publishers are having conversations about these exact issues in reference to libraries. DRM free, unlimited use, at low (close to retail) costs, and no recurring licensing contracts (meaning “ownership”). And very smart developers are working on potential solutions that utilize modern APIs and SDKs to integrate ebook purchases with current library systems.

    There’s still lots of work to be done, and I’m speaking in reference to public more than academic libraries, but new solutions are coming.

    • Yes, I saw that story. A good reason to avoid ADE4, if that’s even possible for most public libraries these days. DRM-free, unlimited use books at close to retail costs (which are generally higher for scholarly books anyway) is definitely what I want to see, and some publishers are doing something close, such as Springer or Bloomsbury, which has a new ebooks platform I tried and liked. The only issue I have is that the publishers providing them won’t at the moment sell individual titles on their platform, which reduces my freedom to select which books I would choose to buy for the library. The packages are subject-based and provide much more flexibility than most Big Deal journal packages, but I’d still like to be able to select such ebooks with the same freedom I select print books.

  12. Lisa Horowitz says:

    I’m with you Wayne. At my institution, we have a few choices when buying certain individual e-books. But they have these weird viewing options (such as those you mention where you can download but only into some special software not used in any other context, or else online, where most people do not read, etc.). And if you want to to download or print, the restrictions are unbelievable! We had a user trying to download a single chapter of a book. It happened to be 83 pages. He wanted to be able to a) read it, yes, but b) refer to it away from his computer. However, the limit for downloading and printing from that book from that vendor was 30 pages. So, honestly, we did a workaround to get a copy of the whole darn thing into a PDF. Was that really so bad for the vendor? Is it any different from copying a chapter of the book 20 years ago, and keeping the copy? Even Overdrive, which someone mentioned above, despite its required software download, works better than the options that I seem to have. I am not a big fan of buying e-books. On the other hand, people really appreciate being able to get the books online …