March 17, 2018

What I Want from Library Ebooks | Peer to Peer Review

Wayne Biven-TatumIn my last column I discussed the various problems that I have with ebooks for academic libraries. Now I’d like to lay out what I want from library ebooks and what it would take for me to switch from print to electronic as the preferred format for books.

Different librarians have different motivations for buying library ebooks. Some want to conserve space in the stacks. Some want to purchase only the books library users immediately want. My motivation to buy (or license) library ebooks is a user request. I’m interested in whatever is best for both libraries and library users, and spending a significant proportion of my budget for hobbled technology isn’t particularly good for either one. So here’s what it would take for me to switch my preference to ebooks over print titles. The changes would have to be pretty much industrywide for me to make the big move.

Unlimited Access

Unlimited access should be a no-brainer, but publishers keep selling single-use licenses to ebooks and librarians keep paying for them, so obviously it’s not. The main advantage of ebooks over print books for library users is accessibility. They might take up less room in the stacks, and a PDA (patron-driven acquisition) ebook plan might save the library some money, but neither of those goals has anything to do with providing the best experience for library users. If accessibility is the main advantage, then limiting that accessibility makes things worse for library users than they need to be. A print book is limited to a single person because it’s a physical object that’s not easily reproducible. An ebook is limited to a one individual because someone deliberately restricted access. Without a specific user request, I won’t buy ebooks with unnecessary usage restrictions, and sometimes I won’t buy one even with a request.

DRM-free Downloads

This one is similar to unlimited access. Unless specifically requested, I refuse to pay money to have access restricted in order to protect sales or copyright or whatever it is scholarly publishers think they are protecting by not allowing DRM-free downloads. Not everyone is going to be reading online. Some scholars are going to want to save relevant books and book chapters the same way they save articles. Entire services such as Zotero are designed to save works with their citations for ease of use. Ebooks technically can be saved the same way for the same purpose, and if that’s not available, then once again it’s an unnecessary hindrance to library users. iTunes and Amazon now sell DRM-free songs, and the music industry hasn’t collapsed. There’s nothing to fear.

Interlibrary Loan

Ebooks must be available for lending through interlibrary loan (ILL). Many publishers already allow this, and the missing feature is an apparatus for doing so. There are traditional channels for sending PDFs, but on this topic I do appreciate why publishers would be wary. Theoretically, one library could purchase an ebook and just send multiple copies to other libraries that have no intention of buying the book regardless of the use. I wouldn’t support DRM, but some sort of ILL/PDA option might work well. If a library borrows an ebook through ILL a couple of times, then the ILL transaction turns into a purchase. That would have to be built into publisher platforms to work, but if possible it would be a way to protect ILL while encouraging sales.

Individual Titles

Some publishers have great ebook platforms—Springer, for example—but it’s impossible to purchase single titles on those platforms. As a subject selector, I’m not interested in investing most or all of my budget in the entire package of a particular publisher’s ebooks. Although I have relatively generous funding for my areas, those funds are still limited, and I have to go with the option that gives me the most freedom of choice in the books I select. When we add in the other requirements such as unlimited access and DRM-free downloads, then my choice among ebooks is severely restricted. Even publishers that have good platforms will often sell individual titles only through third-party vendors with such restrictions. I had a request for a Springer ebook. My choice was a third-party vendor with a single-user license or buying an ebook package from Springer for $13,000. Thanks, but no thanks.

Reasonable Prices

By reasonable, I mean for both libraries and publishers. Amazon has inadvertently fostered the myth that because there’s no printing or physical distribution, book prices should be extremely low, but printing and distribution are a relatively small part of the cost of producing a book. The hardcover price of the book could be a minimum starting point for library ebooks. Some prices are just outrageous, though. I had a request to purchase an ebook from Oxford University Press. The book was published in 2004, and we already had a print copy. OUP offered to sell me an unlimited license for the ebook for $525. If that didn’t work for me, I could instead purchase a backfile containing the book for only $13,000. Again, thanks, but no thanks.

The good news is that there are publishers and platforms that meet some or most of these criteria. The industry is obviously in transition, and I’m hoping it moves completely in this direction. However, until I have the same benefits I have with print books plus the benefits of ebooks, I won’t switch to ebooks as my first preference. For me, ebooks continue to be a nice add-on until such time as the industry standards improve, or I absolutely can’t buy print books anymore. I have to make a default choice between print and electronic for the majority of the books, and as long as publishers are deliberately restricting the capacity of ebook technology, I’ll still choose print as the default option.

Wayne Bivens-Tatum About Wayne Bivens-Tatum

Wayne Bivens-Tatum ( 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. Andy Woodworth says:

    If I might be so bold as to add one item to the list (and it might just go under Pricing), the practice of bundling eBooks with the print books would be welcome. I know it is done with certain publishers of reference materials for the public library, but it would be a welcome expansion to the rest of the collection. (Provided it was under reasonable terms, of course.)

    • Please add any other suggestions you wish. My goal here was to give a positive view of the ideal library ebook for me, and if there are other suggestions that would improve that view, that’s great.

  2. Jeroen Bosman says:

    Although I agree with most of what you say I have made the switch because,

    Some important publsihers do offer what you ask for (except the ILL): Palgrave, CUP, Elgar, T&F (on half of their catalogue), Brill, JSTOR, Elsevier (although you can always argue over what is a fair price).

    We buy the rest on the EBL platform, but it is not the favoured option. It is multiple user, but alas with DRM, so not acceptable for you.

    If you are in a large library serving a broad university the so caled EBS model might be interesting to try: pay for one year of access to the full catalogue of a publisher (or to say the last 4 years) and at the end of the be able to select individual titles to keep indefinitely up the the amount you agreed to spend for the year’s access. It has the advantage that you have download figures of real usage by your patrons to base your selection on.

  3. Good article, and reflective of my opinions on e-books. I would add another expectation that I have, and that is for chapter-level metadata that can be integrated in our discovery system. Wiley’s e-books meet all of your criteria, plus this one. While their e-books are very expensive, they mark them up very little from the price of the Cloth print titles. While I would love to buy e-books from Springer, OUP, JSTOR, etc., very, very few of the existing vendors/publishers adhere to a set of standards like this.

    Another problem that would prevent me from making the switch, is that the research literature reflects a common preference for print among academic researchers. This is for a variety of reasons: less eye strain; ability to multi-task among multiple books at once; easier to read outside, on the couch, etc. I once thought that tablets would provide a way to overcome people’s dislike of reading books on a screen, but I have my doubts about that.

    • Zach, do you use eBooks now? Everything that you mentioned about the features of a print book is much better on an eBook. I entertain discussions on whether eBooks are better than print quite often and I find many people carry the assumptions that you mentioned. However, those who frequently use eBooks tend to become more aware of the features. Every feature that you mentioned is much better on an eBook if the reader knows about the features. I think it is our responsibility as Librarians to teach users how to use the features and to apprise them of those features.

    • Cornel, I do buy and use e-books. But I don’t think they are better with regard to those features. The LCD screen, for laptops, desktops and tablets, is tiring to the eyes. It helps to turn the background from white to a darker color, but often I find this is not possible with academic e-books. Often these are PDFs of the actual print pages, so they include graphs, charts, etc. Having multiple books open at once could be possible if they are each on a different browser tab/window, I guess. Curling up with an ebook on the couch is hard to do with a laptop. Easier with a tablet, but tablets present a bunch of new problems, apart from the fact that we can’t expect all of our users to purchase them. I am glad to hear that you are making progress convincing your readers to use e-books. That’s definitely one part of the equation that needs to be there in order for e-books to work. I just remain cautious about making a complete switch from e- to print.

  4. Marilyn Pierro says:

    Please tell me what DRM is.

    • Digital Rights Management. It’s a term for restrictions that publishers and vendors place on their e-books. These can be restrictions on access or use. Examples would be: only single-user access; downloading a file that expires in 14 days; downloading a file that you can’t print or copy and paste from; or requiring one to read text online instead of offline. Publishers/vendors do this to protect copyright of their texts. That’s understandable, but it often limits what you can do with a book. A cynical interpretation of DRM would be that the publishers want to dissuade use of e-books by making it a cumbersome process, as that way the librarian will buy the print copies instead.

  5. Kathleen Folger says:

    I’d add the ability to read anonymously or at least as anonymously as possible in a digital environment. My preference would be that users not have to have an account on the ebook platform to access the content, that IP authentication, while not completely anonymous, would be sufficient. If there must be an account, it should allow for SAML Single Sign-On.

    In addition, I’d like users to have the option to download either individual chapters or the entire book, DRM-Free.

  6. r harwood says:

    Yes, yes, yes and I agree about the anonymity/privacy issue especially. Public Librarians have jumped on the eBook bandwagon so heedlessly that there’s little chance to hold the line and get better service from publishers and distributors, though efforts like Enki hold some promise. If academic librarians can do better and hold out for the true and full functionality of eBooks, that is a better compass heading for readers, scholarship and librarianship.

    • r harwood says:

      And I want to add that we have to PARTNER publishers in moving forward so that they do not suffer in the process of making eBooks work for libraries.

    • Karin Wikoff says:

      Exactly — the the PARTNERING part.

  7. I agree with you Wayne. This is exactly what I want from eBooks too. I do vigorously look to purchase them though despite the issues that you mentioned. I just try hard to look for ways to work within the current system. The print books is not conducive to learning in the 21st century. There is so much information and so many needs to and problems that a print book can’t easily and quickly solve. The print book is a hindrance. We should focus on freeing the eBook from those issues that you mentioned. But we, as librarians, must teach our users about eBooks, and take a professional stance on which format is better in an information age. As a young librarian, I preach eBooks. I definitely don’t want to be on the wrong side of history.

  8. I’d like point out that the Gale Virtual Reference LIbrary(GVRL)satisfies 4 or the 5 criteria described above(no ILL). In response to some of the comments…. GVRL indexes and returns content at the article level, delivers content in both HTML and .pdf(so no privacy concerns). Full transparency… I work for Gale.

  9. Also I would like eBooks to available in several formats. Different users have different reading devices: Kindle, iPad, Nook, Kobo… At a bare minimum an eBook should be available as an ePub, PDF and azw (or mobi).

  10. Thank you, Wayne, for writing such a thoughtful opinion piece, and for encouraging meaningful discussion among your readers both here and with your previous post. I’m the VP/Publisher at Gale specifically responsible for GVRL, our eBook platform, and I’ve followed along to your articles with great interest.

    I’ve also posted a public response addressing many of the problems/desired solutions you outline over on The Gale Blog. I’d encourage you to read and respond. I’m eager to continue the conversation on how Publishers/eBook providers can best meet your needs, and the needs of today’s researchers.



    Patricia Coryell
    Vice President & Publisher, New Products & GVRL
    Gale, a part of Cengage Learning

  11. Pat, thanks for the comment and the blog post. 4 out of 5 isn’t bad. And for reference titles, the missing ILL actually isn’t that important to me, since even print reference titles were rarely leant through ILL. My library does subscribe to GVRL, and it’s a very useful product.

  12. Dan D'Agostino says:

    I know I’m late to the party, but I’d like to disagree with a couple of points. Research libraries trying to build comprehensive e-book collections are being hurt by the vendor/publisher penchant for offering packages with unlimited cc user for all the titles. This is insane as it channels us into tiered pricing where larger universities must pay a premium for unlimited cc use for e-books that, for the majority, will never be used heavily. Let me repeat that. For large e-book packages, the majority of titles will never be used heavily enough to justify unlimited cc use. Having publishers provide us with a limited use DRM driven download, as per Overdrive, would make economic sense. Money saved this way could be used to buy more titles from other packages — something closer to a research collection than is currently possible.

    Also, I’m wondering if you’ve ever tried to read an academic e-book in it’s entirety? The miserable reading experience has everything to do with being tied to a web based reader. Meantime, many tens of thousands of people, including myself, enjoy e-books that the public library can deliver via Overdrive; e-books that readers can download (with DRM) to hand held devices. DRM does not seem to have been a deal breaker for public library patrons, so I’ve never understood why in the academic world it’s seen as such an anathema.

    My question to you and the other commenters would be, after several years in the e-book world, which libraries have done a better job for their readers: public libraries or academic libraries? Who has been more successful at actually getting their users to read e-books?

    Perhaps we should be looking at what we can learn from them rather than continuing down the path of inflated prices and miserable platforms.

    • There are some publishers that sell packages of DRM-free e-books, true. There are also some aggregators, like Ebrary, that sell subscriptions to DRM e-books. An Ebrary subscription works very similarly to the Overdrive model, so any academic library that wants that can opt for it.

      However, paying for a publisher’s package of DRM-free e-books does not require one to pay a premium based on tiered pricing. For example, a package of Elsevier or Wiley frontlist e-books could most likely be bought for less than it would cost to buy those same titles in print.

      The Ebrary subscription is favored by many because you get access to thousands of e-books, for dollars per book. In fact, in the Academic Complete subscription there is unlimited user access.

      The subscription model is a very dangerous one for academic libraries, though. One is essentially handing the library’s future into the hands of this private company, who makes all decisions about what we get to access, when, how, and for how much. Titles can be pulled overnight if a publisher sees fit. Titles from poor publishers are included in the mix and can’t be avoided. Ebrary’s interface is designed with publishers’ concerns in mind, every bit as much as with patrons’ needs. And I reject that approach for our patrons.

      DRM-free e-books at this point, represent the utmost freedom for academic librarians and users. They allow us to shape our collections for our own ends, and reduce as much interference by the stakeholders who control how e-books are to be used. Also, studies show that academic users prefer the PDF format, as it facilitates printing and saving. Public library users would usually have no need to print or save a chapter. Academic patrons use a text for study/research purposes, so it’s not an exact comparison.

    • Dan D'Agostino says:

      Eric, when you write, “paying for a publisher’s package of DRM-free e-books does not require one to pay a premium based on tiered pricing,” and then cite your Elsevier example, I am guessing that I am not being clear what I mean by “tiered pricing.” This refers to assigning a price based on the FTE size of your institution and it only makes since in an unlimited cc user world. Elsevier definitely uses tiered pricing as do all the other major publishers that I can think of. In terms of the package being cheaper than the print, this is relative to the size of your institution. The larger the institution the more you pay for the e-books, no matter how limited the interest in any particular title may be. Print books have a fixed price; e-book pricing is elastic. As with e-journals, e-book packages represent the largest potential profits for publishers because they create large markets for books that would otherwise have a limited number of purchasers. The whole model rests on convincing librarians that they are getting a deal, whereas they are being sold content they don’t need with prices based on use the content would never get.

      Again, I don’t understand how DRM free books represent the utmost freedom for academic librarians and users. The printing and copying limitations are at the prerogative of the publisher and are not inherent to DRM. If anything, copyright law is a bigger obstacle to the freedom you are referring to (if by freedom you mean the ability to copy and disseminate the text at will). Nevertheless, the freedom that I think you are taking about is a function of the platform and the device on which the platform sits. PDF’s, for example, can have DRM attached to them, be viewed on laptops and tablets, allow for commenting, sharing of snippets of text, and even printing. What won’t DRM let you do that isn’t already restricted by copyright law?

      I completely agree with you that subscription e-books are a very real threat to academic libraries. They’re also not very wise in budgetary terms as you will pay an increased cost for the same content year after year.

    • Dan D'Agostino says:

      Sorry Brian! Don’t know where I got Eric from. Dan

    • Dan, apologies, you are correct on the tiered pricing of Elsevier. I agree with you that buying collections or packages of ebooks is not inherently beneficial, even if one gets a discount per title. Some titles within packages might fall outside of the scope of patrons’ local interests. This is problematic for academic libraries. The only reason why this would be more profitable to publishers than selling us the print books, is that the culture of libraries has shifted, in a dramatic way, to downplay the importance of print books. Fewer print books being sold means that ebooks gradually start to become more profitable for the publisher, even though they could sell, in theory, multiple print books for every one ebook that can be accessed by everyone on campus. So to the extent that you disparage discounted packages being bought solely because they are DRM-free, I definitely agree with you. I also agree that single-user limitations in the vast majority of cases will not present a problem.

      However, if what you are arguing is that library budgets are being harmed by DRM-free ebooks themselves (not just the packages) I don’t think this is accurate. If Elsevier marks an ebook up to $1.25 on the dollar, then Ebrary will often mark a new book up at often twice or even more the hardcover cost. I maintain that even with tiered pricing, the DRM-free ebooks from some publishers are more affordable than what can be bought through aggregators that use DRM. OUP single-user titles are more cost-effective than Ebrary’s or EBSCO’s, and OUP uses no DRM apart from user access limitations (and even those can be avoided, if you pay more). JSTOR titles with DRM are highly cost effective, but they don’t create your ideal Overdrive scenario, as they are split up into multiple chapters, and are in PDF format, which is not ideal for reading on an e-reading device.

      Further, your statement that DRM restrictions are up to the publisher and do not inherently restrict printing or copying, is all well and good, but please show me a DRM system currently out there, that does not restrict copying, printing, and reading a FULL copy of an ebook offline, for an extended period of time. I said nothing about sharing copies of the ebook with others, which is of no concern to me. My question is, can someone use an ebook to the extent that one can use a print book? In many cases, that answer is “Yes, and even more so,” but in other cases that answer is no.

      DRM goes beyond copyright in several ways. Is single-user access a part of copyright law? Are two-week downloads? Is reading on Adobe Digital Editions or FileOpen, or the Bluefire app, a copyright requirement? No, these features are set in place by publishers. I’m not saying the publishers are evil or that DRM is something I’m ideologically against. Indeed, if DRM could be applied to my ideal e-book ecosystem, I would probably put up with it. I’m saying that it is possible to build e-book collections, in an affordable way, and not have DRM restrictions. They won’t be the quick shot of an Ebrary subscription, with thousands of titles appearing at the click of a button, though.

  13. Dan D'Agostino says:

    Thanks Brian, I appreciate the thoughtfulness of your points. I just want to be clear that my anger doesn’t come from the idea that academic libraries are not choosing wisely from among the various types of packages that publishers are offering, but that publishers are not offering the kind of package that makes sense given the technology available. That is, what I want is not even on the table, or hasn’t been until just recently (and then in a limited way). What I want to do is pay for downloadable e-books at a set fee per title, and the ability to choose title by title, rather than pay for unlimited cc use for a package of ebooks for which I have no control over content. In other words, a system for e-books that mimics the print world.

    Regarding DRM, my point is that some librarians, like the author of the piece above, do have an ideological aversion to DRM which I find incomprehensible. Just look at the music industry as a model for what would happen to academic publishing if DRM were removed entirely from all e-book content. It may be that the music industry has not collapsed, but most professional musicians are now poor. Only a very, very few can make money on recordings. If academic publishing went the same way I think what you would see is a much smaller number of titles, and very few commissioned works. How would this be a better world for the scholarly community?

    I am not an American, and perhaps it is unfair of me to say this, but it seems to me that this view that DRM is always bad, as our author seems to think, seems particularly American (that is, that regulation is inherently a bad thing). My point of view, which is shared by many outside the US, is that sometimes regulation is a good thing, particularly when used to protect vulnerable industries. Unlimited freedoms are not always in everyone’s best interest. Sometimes insisting on unlimited freedoms (i.e., the abolition of all DRM on e-books) is the equivalent of cutting off your nose to spite your face. After all, what constitutes the better musical experience, listening to high quality recordings as in the past (a la the Beatles), or watching America’s Top Idol today?

    • Too often the DRM is deliberately used to reduce the ability to use what should be easy to use technology. It does nothing to enhance the reading experience for users. Here’s an account of how it was used to make what should have been a simple experience with JSTOR ebooks an impossible one:

    • I am an American, and in my experience, DRM has always been bad for me, as a customer, in the long term.

      I buy many ebooks every year, and I generally have one basic requirements when a buy an ebook, DRMed or not:
      1) That once I buy an ebook, it will continue to work.

      That doesn’t seem so hard, does it? Except, I’ve seen ebook after ebook fail that test:
      1) Once, my physical device died, and when I switched devices my ebooks no longer worked. (Strike 1)
      2) Another time, the seller went out of business, causing everyone who had bought books from them to no longer be able to use their books.
      3) So, you’re probably thinking, this means I should have picked a bigger company. Well, both Amazon and Microsoft have, in the past, decided to shaft their consumers by removing support for a previous DRM system. In the case of Amazon, this was their pre-kindle Pdf format. For Microsoft, see “MSN Music”.

      So yes, I have an aversion to DRM on purchased books, and it is somewhat ideological. I believe that if I buy an ebook, I should be able to use it for the rest of my life (with the occasional need for a format conversion). I don’t believe that the format should break, just because the seller got bored of the format or went bankrupt.

      With proper care, a record or book can last over 40 years. I want ebooks that will last that long if I care for them.

      I do tolerate DRM for rentals though. With a rental, there is no assumption that the book will work in the future. I would say that DRM is perfectly fine. Just make sure it’s only used in cases where failing next year is fine.

  14. Another late comment! This is a great discussion and will help inform our collection policy…

    Our library is committed to providing resources for our distance-learning and non-traditional students (those who might not be able to fit a library visit into full-time work schedules, for example). So we have to consider eBooks as resources for curriculum in those programs. Here’s hoping for better and better options that protect user privacy and facilitate user access.

    • A Kelly, if I were in a library that supported a lot of distance users, I’d behave differently. I still wouldn’t want to buy ebooks that didn’t meet my criteria, but I’d have to. My campus is mostly residential, so that’s not really an issue for me.

  15. Julia Mitford says:

    Great article. I agree wholeheartedly with the points you’ve made, particularly about user licenses and pricing. I was looking to acquire a list of audio technology books for our library – only 1 copy of each would be generally required in print and we often go for paperback. The paperback is $65 AUD and Taylor & Francis through EBL are offering a digital copy for over $300. With prices like these we’ll never be able to afford to stick with digital delivery. We can offer on demand eBooks with EBL but with some publishers now charging $40+ AUD for 7 day loans even that is almost impossible now.

    The EBL business model always reflected the way libraries are used and prices were reasonable but the publishers who think they’re protecting their sales are stopping it from working to full effect, and I fear now they’re part of the ProQuest empire there’s no one fighting for that business model anymore. And guess what publishers? We’ll just find a different text for our course which is priced more reasonably, or we’ll stick with the $65 paperback thanks very much.

  16. Patrick’s comment that, “I believe that if I buy an ebook, I should be able to use it for the rest of my life (with the occasional need for a format conversion).” touches on one of my concerns about academic libraries buying eBooks. The microform formats that we used just yesterday (think micro-opaque cards and ultrafiche) are obsolete. Libraries were offered the chance to replace large collections such as the Library of English Literature (LEL) and Library of American Civilization (LAC) with microfiche cards for around $50,000 a set, as I recall. The cost of that “format conversion” was beyond many libraries’ reach, and they still have the ultrafiche. Some are linking to digitized versions, but the labor of linking is not free. Sooner or later, there will be something disruptive that makes eBooks obsolete. Then libraries that have poured thousands of dollars into eBooks will be stuck with yet another obsolete format –unless they have funds to repurchase the same books in the new format (they won’t come free). Whether it is holographic books or something we have yet to imagine, I believe that libraries that buy and own eBooks should make generous terms for format conversions a condition of purchase.

  17. Karin Wikoff says:

    Here’s the thing — yes, those are the ideals a librarian would want for an e-book. As head of tech services, I totally understand about needing to get the best resources for the most affordable prices. But how is it sustainable? Most academic texts already don’t bring in enough revenue to cover the cost of producing and distributing them. I can see why so many publishers are terrified of electronic formats and the way they can take a huge gouge out of already slender profit margins (with a few notable exceptions I don’t need to name here because you know who they are).

    What I’d really like to see is a conference table with a fair representation of both librarians and publishers who can all put aside their prejudices about each other to take the other guy’s legitimate concerns in mind and come up with a model together that truly works for everyone.

    KW — pipe dreamer