Friday, 15 April 2011

ebooks and sellers, independence and neutrality

In the interview 'E-books procurement - a disruptive business' (CILIP Update April 2011), Elspeth Hyams interviews EBL's Kari Paulson about their business models for academic libraries.

I read this twice, and by the end of the second time I had confirmed in my mind that CILIP had misjudged their approach to this piece. Elspeth graciously contacted me and invited a letter, and also didn't judge me too harshly for my angry sounding tweet. I am grateful to her for both.

The letter will contain mostly the same sentiment as this post, but as Update is behind a paywall, this will serve as a public response.

I've never dealt with EBL directly, although they have offered us trials before. I have dealt with many ebook suppliers, both aggregators and publishers directly, and here lies the source of problem. The exposure of a front page, a 3 page article and a page long case study on one supplier is gives too much focus to one company, and one business model, and I'm uncomfortable with this exposure not being tempered with some contrasting analysis.

There are many different models for ebook acquisition in academic libraries, and the diversity of these suggests to me that none is perfect, and that no-one scheme suits all. For an overview - with a lot of figures and analysis, see Terry Bucknell's excellent Buying by the Bucketful presentation, given at UKSG 2011. Demand-Driven-Acquisition (DDA) is one model, but it's not the only one.

I think ebook acquisition for HE is a massively complex issue, and I'm delighted to see CILIP reporting on it, but I would like to see difficult questions that electronic collections librarians like myself are asking everyday asked of providers. Here's a few issues I'd love to more analysis on:
  1. DRM - does EBL use self-destructing PDFs, or other Digital Rights Management? In my experience, locked PDFs, limited 'loans' etc just aggravate users. I always say to ebook vendors: give us unlocked PDFs, without usage limits or loan periods and we'll talk. Give us DRM and we'll do whatever we can to take our business elsewhere. Users come first. 
  2. Profit - From the article: "crucially, publishers were making more money out of the libraries that were paying for short-term loans (ILL) as well as outright purchase, than they did from those that only bought ebooks in the usual way". ILL is portrayed as bad for publishers because the "publisher sits outside of the economy." There's a can of worms there about intellectual property, but do publishers really need to keep looking for new ways to get money out of libraries? 
  3. Scholarly Communications - if excruciating journal price rises are to blame for libraries buying less books, perhaps CILIP could give attention to wide efforts to redess that balance? 
  4. Collection Development - what does DDA mean for long term collection development - the short-termism of DDA have longer-term consequences? 
  5. Resource Discovery and trust - it used to be that librarians added value - the nature of a collection is the nature of the library. If you fill your catalogue with things you don't own, do you dilute what you have, and users ability to find it? 
So my challenge, CILIP, is to follow this cover article up with some analysis of alternatives - get to the heart of the matter, make me a better informed librarian, and challenge the business models like this from the side of Libraries, their staff and their customers. You're right to strive to be independent, but you don't need to be neutral!