How Libraries Get eBooks

Sakina reads ebook
Rgaudin. “Sakina découvrant «Le Petit Prince» sur un ereader Cybook de chez Bookeen (Bamako, Mali).” 2014. Wikimedia Commons. [Creative Commons CC0 1.0 Universal Public Domain Dedication.]
If you stay long enough in the library community (it can take anywhere from 5 minutes to 6 months), you’ll hear about open access.  This idea of open access – where everyone can get to (usually scholarly) information without hitting a paywall – is a blissful idea for plenty of librarians.  LIS programs will spend weeks on teaching about OA; forums and conferences on OA abound; Twitter is alive with OA tweets.

Well, while the rest of the library world basks in the utopian glow of OA, I am stuck in quite the opposite. In acquisitions, we feed the paywall.  Copyright and honoring licenses is the name of our game.  DRM – or digital rights management – haunts nearly every electronic resource we buy.

And herein, I’ll talk about one of the biggies when it comes to non-OA: ebooks.  I could probably write enough books about ebooks in libraries to rival Balzac, but this post can be an introduction to the world of ebooks in libraries.

What’s an ebook?

Well, that’s tough.  The Oxford Reference says an ebook is a book stored on a website, and this book can be downloaded and printed and read. The Oxford English Dictionary claims an ebook is an electronic version of a print book, a version which can be read on a computer or handheld device.  For most academic librarians, an ebook is an all-purpose term for various ways of getting digital content.  And these ebooks (whatever your definition) come with oftentimes extensive DRM technology, which limits usage.

They can come in tons of formats, including but not limited to ASCII, PDF, RTF, TK3, ePub, HTML. And you can read them on nearly as many systems – computers, tablets, PDAs, phones, mp3 players, e-readers.

Where do libraries get ebooks?

A lot of places.  Usually, a library will work with the publisher or a 3rd party vendor.

Public libraries will most likely work with one of the Big 5 ebook publishers – Hachette, HarperCollins, Penguin Random House, MacMillan, Simon & Schuster – who are 66% of the ebook market.  For public libraries, ebooks have to be licensed for a certain number of months or loans; and these licenses can be 3 or 4 times the price of a print book.

Academic libraries can work with publishers – of academic materials – or 3rd party vendors.  Depending on the institution and its finances, the academic library might license ebooks as well.  Or they will try to buy the ebooks in perpetuity (which also includes paying yearly hosting fees to the vendor/publisher).  Still, the ebooks will be 3-4 times the price of a print book for libraries – often because publishers believe library copies will limit sales.

How do libraries “buy” ebooks?

There are several ways of acquiring ebooks.  The two main ways are buying packages and buying individual titles.

A package is list of ebooks curated by a publisher or vendor.  A library pays for that whole lump of books.  This purchasing method often provides libraries with books that they would not have purchased (except that it was in a package with more desirable titles).  And each package often comes with its own interface, which makes the reading experience odd for patrons.  But this purchasing method is often simpler and has looser DRM; plus, less popular ebooks are made available to patrons.

Title-by-title selection and buying is a much more efficient use of funds. The libraries can pick only the titles they want, and not bother paying for books they don’t want.  But this is much more labor intensive – someone has to sit down and determine what exactly to buy – and the DRM on individually purchased titles can be exceptionally stringent.

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