mandag 6. oktober 2014

If I could turn back time (I wouldn't)

During one of my sleepless nights I ended up in Twitterland with a few visits to the State of Facebook. Apart from the usual stuff, I noticed an article from the Times of San Diego, titled "The Hidden Costs of E-Books at University Libraries". This article has apparently been shared and liked and retweeted by thousands of people. Even librarians have liked and recommended it.

The article is written by Peter C. Herman, a professor of English Literature, and I applaud anyone who takes a critical interest in library services, especially from the ones we design our services for: students and academic staff.

The demise of inter-library loans
Herman points at many very important issues concerning e-books and I completely agree with some of his analysis. One of the main problematic issues about e-books is the way they affect interlibrary loans. Very few publishers/e-book vendors allow books to be accessed by people outside the paying/subscribing institution. This "effectively kills inter-library loan", as Herman quite correctly asserts. The end of inter library loans represents a real shift in the library world, and not for the better. As it is now, if a patron needs a book that we don't own at my library, we will borrow it from another library, be it from Oslo or Ottawa. Postage and packaging is not free of course, but we pay no fees to the lending libraries, and the patron does not pay anything at all. We provide literature where we can, that is our motto. With e-books, there are usually only two options. Borrow the printed version (if possible) or buy the e-book (if possible). 

Death by bundling
This last point leads us to another major challenge that Herman considers, and with which I also agree. Buying an e-book is not really a straightforward operation. (As purchasing a printed book is.) Many minor publishers don't sell e-books at all. But more problematic: Many major publishers refuse to sell single e-books, and present instead bundles or packages of e-books in an all-or-nothing-offer, in theory quite reasonably priced if we look at the average price per book. The problem is that this limits the libraries' freedom of choice immensely. If we buy some e-book packages from 3-4 publishers, there is usually no funds left for other publishers. I think it is important that librarians all over the world recognise this as a problem and take a stand against it. Next year, I will probably not buy the usual e-book packages from one of the major publishers, simply because I can't pick and choose the titles that will be best for my library patrons. Having said that, there are exceptions out there, and even though I don't like to mention any names in this connection, I must praise Cambridge University Press for (still) letting us buy single, high quality e-books.

Norway v. The United States
Before I continue, I will point out that I work at a Norwegian university library, and I know that our situation differs in many aspects from the American libraries. Still, mostly our experiences and practices are quite similar, I think.

One of the differences I see according to the article is the pricing of e-books. In my experience, e-books are usually not cheaper than printed books. This is probably because in Norway, VAT is added on e-books, but not on printed books. (Yes, I know - quite incredible!) Another reason might be that we buy multi user licenses for most of our e-books, thus avoiding one of Herman's problems. The extra costs are justified by the fact that these books don't need shelving or other physical handling. Just getting enough shelf space is quite a challenge in a modern library.

Herman also describes only two routes to e-books: PDA (patron driven acquisition) and subscription. At my library, we use both of these options, but also a third one, which is buying (single titles or packages) from publishers. These books can be annotated, printed, downloaded, and read on (almost) whichever reader you prefer. Clearly, the best option. Subscription of e-books are not really something we recommend, but we have tried it.

How was it for you, dear?
The first problem I have with Herman's article is the way he asserts that reading an e-book is a lesser experience than reading a printed book. He even compares it to the difference between watching a movie at home and watching it at a cinema. This is his personal opinion, but I beg to differ! He even claims that "recent studies prove beyond doubt" [my italics] that e-books discourage intense reading and deep learning. I suppose there are certain scientific studies that prove something beyond doubt, but this is certainly not the case concerning the reading of e-books. Some of these studies have weak conclusions and some are even  seriously flawed in that they compare the degree of learning from the two formats, not taking into consideration that most of the participants have a whole lifetime of experience with printed books, and sometimes only hours of experience reading e-books, which naturally will affect the outcome. My prediction is that these differences will even out when e-book reading becomes the norm. 

Copy right, copy left!
He then goes on to say that paper books "have no limitations". Really? Apart from the fact that they are only available for one person at the time, and that you need to visit a physical place to borrow and return it, and you can only keep it for a certain amount of time, and if you need it on a Sunday you can't have it because the library is closed, and if someone put it in the wrong place on the shelf, it is impossible to find, and if someone spills coffee on it, it might have to be binned and might not be replaced.

And then he argues that you cannot download the entire book from Ebrary. Well how much can you download from a printed book? In Norway, at least, there are actually rules for how much you are allowed to copy from a printed book. And guess what! It is 15 % or a whole chapter, and 30 % from older books. Not that different from Ebrary, you see! (And just to make it clear, Ebrary is NOT an optimal e-book platform.)

Back to life, back to reality!
Lastly, the article claims that e-books "threaten to destroy the very notion of a library". Which I think is a rather sad statement. Should libraries not change? Schools have changed, hospitals have changed, banks, and even pubs change to adjust to the time we live in. Why should libraries stay the same? Should we ignore technology? The internet? The needs from students and the research community? Should we go back to an all-paper collection? I think not. Unless we want to see our jobs become a thing of the past.

To all of you who liked Herman's article: I do understand why, but frankly, people: There is no way back!

Quite pretty, but we don't need them anymore.