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September 8, 2010, 02:40 PM ET

E-Books: What a Librarian Wants

Many university presses are working hard to figure out how to be effective players in the e-book market. What do academic libraries want when it comes to e-books?

James R. Mouw is the assistant director for technical and electronic resources and the electronic resources officer at the University of Chicago Library. That means he handles "all things digital in terms of the licensing and the contracting side of things," he said in an interview.

These days, about 20 percent of the current monographs the library adds are digital, according to Mouw. The move toward e-books has been gradual but noticeable and parallels a similar shift in the journals world, he said.

Users have made their own shift toward digital materials. The library recently did a survey of Chicago's graduate and professional students. Many respondents said they wanted more e-books. "It came up over and over again," Mouw said. "I don't think we have good data on how [e-books are] being used. We know they're being used a lot."

Mouw laid out a few criteria he wants digital monographs to meet. First, if there are going to be print and digital versions, they should be available at the same time, so the library can decide which best suits its needs. "If we have patron requests, we're not going to wait three months for an e-book," he said.

Second, digital monographs need to be made available in a way that allows the library to pick and choose and not make duplicate purchases. "They need to be present in our vendor databases so we can select them, they need to be part of our approval plans, they need to be found, selected, paid for, all through our regular acquisitons streams," Mouw said. The library's major book supplier is Yankee Book Peddler. That doesn't preclude working with other vendors. Would he buy digital monographs from a university-press consortium? "It would depend on the arrangement, but sure," he said.

Third, the Chicago library strongly prefers to buy digital content that's guaranteed be permanently accessible, "so we essentially own it," Mouw said. That means the publisher needs to have a sound archival strategy in place. (Mouw mentioned the Portico model as an example of perpetual archiving.)

Cost, understandably, is important. For Chicago's purposes, the cost of a digital monograph "needs to be in the ballpark of what the print edition would cost," Mouw said. "I'm not going to pay 10 times more for an e-book than for a print edition."

The Chronicle asked about the dreaded DRM, digital-rights management, which allows rights holders to control how much access users have to the material and what they can do with it. How much DRM does Mouw want to see applied to the e-books Chicago acquires? "Ideally none" was his answer.

"I think we tend to view DRM, especially if it's intrusive, as one of those things that can put a barrier between users and the product," he explained. "I spend my life trying to take away barriers. So it's bothersome when it's intrusive, and that's something that the publishers need to think about very carefully—what's appropriate to protect without going too far."—Jennifer Howard






1. philosophy - September 08, 2010 at 04:40 pm

This may be only peripheral to the article, but many e-texts are in pdf format. There are two main versions of a pdf file: an image version, and an OCR (optical character recognition) version. The image version does not allow text searching for specific words or phrases; the OCR version does.
For academic work, text searching is a major advantage.

Thus it is advisable that all pdf files should be OCR rather than image files!

2. procrustes - September 08, 2010 at 05:01 pm

And the publishers need to get over the one copy, one user at time nonsense. We should not import print limitations into a digital world. And not bump up the price to much. After all, most academic books go largely unread anyway. Its not like we are all buying Stephen King novels.

3. 11159995 - September 08, 2010 at 07:54 pm

The challenge ebooks pose to university presses are significant. If the infrastructure needed to produce print books must remain in place--and it will so long as other markets outside academe remain important for presses to remain financially viable enterprises--then the costs for adding ebooks to the mix is an additional expense. The library market is not likely to increase in size; as Mr. Mouw suggests, librarians are likely not to want to buy a book in both print and electronic form. Thus presses will have to spend more to satisfy library needs while selling no more copies in total than they do now. If this means increasing prices, one effect may well be that scholars will cease buying any monographs themselves--as many have by discarding their print journal subscriptions--thus reducing sales to individuals that have helped presses stay afloat as sales to libraries have declined over the last few decades. There is no easy answer as to how this will all work out financially for presses.---Sandy Thatcher (past president of the Association of American University Presses, 2007/8)

4. referencegirl - September 09, 2010 at 06:19 am

I comepletley agree that they should be in OCR files, otherwise, they are not very useful to readers. Right now. In order to find and check out an eBook from my public library, I have to leave the library catalog and go to Overdrive. I hope to see a future where the two are integrated into one.

If we are going to compare eBooks to eJournals... I do not see why a library would not have both the print and eectronic forms of something. We often get both the print and elcetronic form of popular journal titles so why not books? I comepletely understand that we want to be able to own titles forever but that hasn;t happened with eJournals and I don't see that it will happen with eBooks either.

As for DRM codes... How else to do you expect to manage circulation? DRM codes are what make limited checkout periods possible. Otherwise, the library would be distrubuting unlimited copies without any end to borrowing time. While it would be nice if books were free, it is only fair that publishers and writers be compensated for their labors.

5. g8briel - September 09, 2010 at 05:51 pm

Another important feature of OCR PDFs is that they are accessible to the visually disabled. Ebooks, in general, have huge potential in increasing the accessibility of library collections. They are never on a shelf too high or low to reach for those physically unable, they are able to go to users where they are instead of the other way around, and they can accommodate scholars with different learning styles.

What is unfortunate is that some ebook publishers purposely disable screen reader capabilities. My assumption is that they don't want them to compete with their audio book products. This is something I hope my fellow librarians will not stand for.

6. marcdh - September 09, 2010 at 08:08 pm

For people interested in e-books - there is a huge amount of free e-literature available on the web. A couple of months ago, I started FreeLiterature ( - in support of Project Gutenberg and e-books in general. An extensive linklist to more than 600 sites that matter is available. Also there is the possibility to help in the digitising process for PG and Check it out and enjoy!

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