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eBooks: Current State in Libraries

Guest Post from Graham Lavender, Associate Librarian, The Michener Institute of Education at University Health Network [well over due for posting, sorry Graham!]

On March 17 & 18, I had the pleasure of attending eBooks Symposium! The Current State of the Art in Libraries at the University of Toronto iSchool. The room was filled with mainly public librarians from across the Greater Toronto Area (GTA), though some came from as far as Ottawa.  There were a number of vendors in attendance (not just including those who gave presentations). The many insights into the world of ebooks wouldn’t all fit into a blog post, but I share some of the highlights.

Stephen Abram, conference co-chair and Executive Director, Federation of Ontario Public Libraries, kicked things off with a fascinating look at the data behind ebook usage in Ontario. For example, 41% of people surveyed indicated they had “checked the library’s online catalogue, downloaded an item, or accessed other materials via the library’s website,” and the top two “specific types of electronic resources used on the library’s website” were fiction ebooks and non-fiction ebooks. Considering that 86% of Ontarians have read at least one book in the past year, it’s no surprise that the demand for ebooks continues to grow, especially in Metro Toronto and other urban parts of the GTA, where ebook usage is most prevalent. Take a look through Stephen’s slides for more data: http://www.slideshare.net/stephenabram1/e-books-symposium-intro

Next up was Vickery Bowles, City Librarian, Toronto Public Library, to talk about the Fair Ebook Prices campaign, supported by a coalition of public libraries from across Ontario and beyond. The campaign was created to raise awareness of the gap between what publishers charge individuals for ebooks and what they charge libraries, either through higher list prices or through policies that require libraries to purchase popular ebooks more than once based on the number of times they’re used. The campaign was reported on by a variety of media outlets, and the hashtag #FairEbookPrices was shared thousands of times on social media. Ultimately, Penguin Random House switched to a more favourable pricing model after learning about the campaign.

Beth Jefferson, Founder & CEO, Bibliocommons, and Patrick Kennedy, President, Bibliocommons, each gave a talk about the challenges libraries face in growing ebook usage. For example, library catalogues based on Amazon-style lists of “what’s popular” tend to be filled with materials that aren’t currently available, so why not advertise “what’s available now” instead? Discovery issues can also be related to poor MARC records – how can we generate better MARC records to help people find what they’re looking for? And how do we break free from the silos created by vendors offering ebooks on competing platforms?

Christina de Castell, Manager, Policy & Advocacy, International Federation of Library Associations and Institutions (IFLA), [now Director, Collections & Technology, Vancouver Public Library] joined us via Skype to talk about how far ebooks in libraries have come since IFLA released its Principles for Library eLending in 2013. We’ve come a long way, but there is still plenty of work to be done. Thankfully, groups like IFLA are working hard on these issues; see Christina’s slides for more: http://www.slideshare.net/stephenabram1/decastell-ebookuof-t

The Practitioners Panel was an opportunity to hear the perspectives of people in the field in a variety of types of libraries. One of the pain points mentioned was the varying (and changing) restrictions placed on the use of ebooks; as an example, in the Psychiatry Online collection, users can no longer download the ebooks and must read them in the browser instead. All the panelists were in favour of a “blended model” of ebook licensing, where libraries would have the option of buying a certain number of copies of an ebook and temporarily licensing further copies. This would allow libraries to provide more access to books while they’re popular, without ending up with many expensive purchased copies of books that are no longer being used.

The second panel, known as Publishers Perspectives, considered the challenges faced by the publishers of ebooks. For example, how can small university presses stay in business when their home institutions are often cutting their budgets or cutting them loose altogether? And if a particular ebook is only relevant to a handful of researchers across the country, but it’s important from a cultural or scientific point of view, how can the publisher recover the cost of producing it?

Michael Zeoli, Vice President, Strategic eContent Development & Partner Relations, YBP, provided the perspective of an aggregator. In discussing Demand Driven Acquisition (DDA), he explained how libraries are benefiting from giving users access to a wide variety of titles and only paying for the ones that get used; the flip side, of course, is that publishers are unhappy when they provide a large number of records and only get paid for a few titles. This situation is causing publishers to increase the restrictions they place on their ebooks.

Accessibility is a major issue for ebooks in libraries: while ebooks offer great potential for users with print disabilities, this potential can be limited by Digital Rights Management (DRM) and other restrictions. Margaret Williams, Director of Content and Access for the Centre for Equitable Library Access (CELA), discussed the ways in which ebooks can be made more accessible, from ensuring that sidebar content is included along with the main content on a page to improving findability via search interfaces. It’s true that users with print disabilities can simply ask library staff for help, but true accessibility requires that they be able to access ebooks on their own (besides, as Margaret pointed out, many library staff may not feel comfortable helping a user pick out erotica!).

Michael Ciccone, Bibliotekkie Consulting, Inc., talked about how readers’ advisory can be improved with a tool called Loan Stars. Loan Stars allows library staff from across Canada to vote on their favourite upcoming books before they’re released to the public. Based on a successful model from the United States, this new program provides library staff with electronic reader copies of upcoming books, allows them to vote, and then produces reports on the most highly rated new books. Libraries can use these reports to help their users connect with relevant new reads.

David Ondrik, Research Solutions Manager – Ebooks, Elsevier,  wrapped things up with a look at the state of ebooks in research libraries. More and more researchers are requiring interdisciplinary information at the broad book level (as opposed to the more specific journal level), so libraries need to consider subject areas beyond their core domains. For example, if an engineer wants to build a water filter that works like the human kidney, they’ll need access to biomedical research. This has led to an increase in “turn aways” – instances of researchers finding records for ebooks they need, but not being able to access the full text.

The attendees came for a variety of reasons: some are responsible for the development of their ebook collections, while others want to make the most of the ebooks they already have. But no matter their specific need, I’m sure everyone walked away from this day and a half with an enhanced perspective on the past, present, and future of ebooks in libraries.

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