20 April 2013


Originally published in the ALLUNY Newsletter 38.1, March 2013

We recently received a copy of the latest Federal Security Laws of Municipal Bonds Deskbook.  But wait, there’s more! With each pBook (short for Physical Book or, for our purposes, ‘book’), the publisher also includes a FREE copy of the title as an eBook!  Which is nice, I suppose, but actually pretty useless to us in the library, unless I missed the Kindle packed in that box.

First, I have to point out that I like eBooks.  My iPad is full of free literature from Project Gutenberg, as well as beautiful eBooks from the Metropolitan Museum and NASA.  eBooks are easily portable, making it easy to carry a reference collection into any setting; they can do very interesting, otherwise impossible things, like bring in video files or interactive features like making notes or linking out to supplemental material; they can be (and are) instantly updated when new content becomes available.  I understand the benefits eBooks offer.

But for libraries, eBooks pose problems and do not offer solutions.  For starters, how do I lend an eBook?  The FREE copy I ‘received’ is device-specific: it can be downloaded to a single, particular electronic reader.  Where is the device to which it is to be downloaded?  That’s something we must supply, of course—meaning that, instead of a FREE copy, we must buy an expensive toy to use our material, which we can then lend.   eBooks are actually less valuable to us than database access to the same treatise titles, since our contract allows unlimited access, simultaneous access, and distributed access, as needed.

Perhaps we would prefer to keep our copy on a central server, to ‘check out’ or lend to various patrons as required, the way we would check out a print copy.  This is how eBooks work in public libraries; while that system still has obvious problems, such as arbitrary publisher limits on how often a copy may circulate, it is much closer to a usable model for libraries than the prior paragraph.  It also begins to consider an answer to the second problem eBooks present: how do I archive the material for future reference?

Oh, wait.  No one cares about archiving now, so being able to permanently retain a format-neutral copy on our in-house system doesn’t matter, does it?  Who would keep a print copy on the shelf, after all?  How could that ever be useful?

In addition to long-term preservation, books have an advantage as discrete physical objects that can be disaggregated from the collection and used individually, simultaneously, and in various locations.  They are easy to study, and to lend, as parts rather than as a whole: no one monopolized the entire collection by borrowing a volume of the NY Jur 2d.

In short, the benefits of eBooks accrue to two groups, neither of which is the library: the convenience and productivity features benefit eBook readers, while their potential for high profit margins thanks to low physical production and distribution costs benefit publishers.  That no efforts to benefit libraries have been made leads to the conclusion that our vendors prefer to sell to individual attorneys, rather than to libraries.  This forces each attorney to buy a copy of each title, rather than share a copy as needed.  As librarians, we should not abdicate our curatorial role, especially as this scheme is intended to make our clients spend more, with no bottom-line benefit.

Note:  The day this column was due, I received a message from the publisher announcing their new partnership with Overdrive to establish an eBook lending platform.  Perhaps our concerns are overblown, or already being addressed--I certainly hope so.  A better policy for the publisher, though, would be to express intentions BEFORE rolling out new processes, rather than trying to explain what's happening once it has begun.  A recording of the presentation is available here.

No comments:

Post a Comment