The Hidden Costs of eBooks in University Libraries

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The Classical Library: The Reading Room at the University of Graz, Austria. Photo by Dr Marcus Gossler via Wikimedia Commons

By Peter C. Herman

In recent years, the California State University and University of California Libraries have experimented with packages that replace paper books with e-books. The advantages are obvious. With eBooks, you no longer have to go to a library to pull out a book. Just log in from any device that connects you to the web, anytime, in any dress code, and voila! the book appears on your screen.

But the real draw is the price. Library budgets, as well as university budgets, have been cut, and companies such as Pearson and Elsevier offer e-book packages that provide access (I’ll explain the awkward syntax in a moment) to many books. at what seems like a minimal cost. The savings are multiplied when the package serves the entire system. So instead of each campus buying a paper book, the 23 CSUs, for example, share a single e-book. At least that’s the theory. The reality is very different.

In the old days, a library would buy a book from the publisher or vendor and then do whatever it wanted with it. Users could borrow the book, read it at leisure, renew it or copy extracts from it. Libraries shared books they did not own through interlibrary loan. But that’s not how e-books work.

Instead, a library pays to access a data file through one of two routes (definition varies) triggers a purchase or subscription to an electronic library that does not involve any mechanism for purchasing the eBook. Both avenues are fraught with all kinds of problems.

First, reading an eBook is a different and lesser experience than reading a paper book, just like watching a movie at home is different from watching a movie at the cinema.

There is a huge difference between regular reading and academic reading, and recent studies undoubtedly prove that while e-books are a great fit for the latest John Grisham or Fifty shades of Grey, they actively discourage intense reading and deep learning.

For example, a 2007 study concluded that “Reading on a screen can tarnish comprehension because it is more mentally taxing and even physically tiring than reading on paper.” And a 2005 study by a professor at San Jose State University has proven that online reading encourages skimming while discouraging in-depth or focused reading.

The solution might be to print out the chapters you want to read. But eBook packages intentionally make this as difficult as possible.

Paper books have no limits since the library owns the book. But like Clifford Lynch recently Put the, “anybody purchased an e-book: it is authorized under generally very complex conditions which limit what you are authorized to do with it. For example, at UCSD, Ebrary (now owned by Proquest), limits e-books to one user at a time, allows users to save a maximum of 30 percent of a book, “although some publishers have set more restrictive limits”, and allows you to copy only 15 percent of a book. ‘a book, text only, not illustrations.

At SDSU, Ebrary also limits the number of pages you can download. The amount varies depending on the publisher. One book allows up to 89 pages, but with another, that of Victoria Kahn The crisis of political obligation in England, a particularly complex job with very long chapters, you only get 19 pages and the print is disfigured with a code stuck on the page. There is also a limit to the number of pages you can download per session, and the total is not large. I downloaded less than 20 pages before exceeding my quota.

The 19-page limit of an Ebrary book.

E-books also do not circulate beyond the institution, which effectively kills interlibrary loan. As for a book serving all of the CSU or UC systems, many come with single user restrictions, which means that only one user at a time in the CSU or the CPU can read the book. Of course, Ebrary could say that the publisher imposes these restrictions. And that’s the point: publishers do not impose restrictions on paper books. E-book packages also compromise the stability of the library’s collection since the seller can remove one at their discretion without notice. So one day you can access a book, the next day it’s gone.

EBooks prevent extensive reading, their use is severely restricted, and they can go extinct without notice, so why are CSU and UC Libraries experimenting with replacing paper with computer files? Is the e-book phenomenon yet another example of university administrators chasing the latest electronic fad? Like MOOCs (which even Sebastian Thrun from Udacity called “an ugly product”), eBooks swap something that works for something that doesn’t, and worse, threatens to destroy the very notion of a library. What is the attraction?

The answer is that eBooks appear to be a cheap way to access hundreds, if not thousands, of expensive books essential for research and education. Right now, the subscription packages offered by Proquest and Ebsco may seem expensive (between $ 500,000 and $ 800,000 per year), but the price is “extremely low for the number of books acquired,” to quote the report. CSU on the e-book pilot project. The average cost per book of the Ebrary Package is between $ 5 and $ 9, a dramatic saving given that the average price of a hardcover academic humanities book is around $ 100, and many are much more expensive. .

Then again, payday loans also seem to be a cheap way to cope with, shall we say, a period of financial embarrassment. But the long-term costs of these loans can be ruinous, and so can e-journal article packages. In the beginning, they too were sold at an “extremely low price in relation to the number” of journals acquired. But they did not stay “extremely low” for long. Today the exorbitant amounts companies such as Elsevier and Springer are charging a growing percentage of library budgets, and their contracts typically last three to five years with built-in increases of 6 percent per year, well above inflation.

Lured by the initial low price and the promise of convenience, academic libraries are now trapped because they cannot risk losing access to all the major journals. As prices go up and budgets stay the same or go down, an increasing percentage is spent on the service of the package newspaper subscription, less and less on staffing, on staff. hours, etc.

The same will happen with eBook packages. In the past, once the library bought the book, that was the end of the deal. The library did not have to send money to the publisher to keep the book in circulation. No matter what happened, no matter how big the budget cuts, the book stayed with the library because the library owned it.

But that’s not the case with an e-book subscription. Right now the prices seem quite reasonable, but once a library or library system gets addicted, they continually have to pay the rising subscription fees or else a large number of books will simply disappear. . With a traditional book, the costs stop once the purchase is complete. But with e-book packages, the costs never stop. They just go up.

Worse yet, by replacing paper books with e-book packages, academic libraries will have outsourced the knowledge collection to private multinational corporations whose primary goal is not to advance knowledge, but profits. E-book packages are another step in transforming libraries from centers of learning, teaching and research into cash cows for Proquest results.

Why would libraries even consider such a Faustian deal? Simple: they’re trying to make the best of a really bad situation. University budgets have by no means recovered from the financial crash, which reduced funding two billion dollars. Yes, money has been returned, but the CSU budget is now what we had in 2007, and we need to teach 90,000 more students. If eBook packages seem like a bad idea, then the answer is to restore funding for higher education to a level where we don’t have to make such terrible decisions.


Peter C. Herman is professor of English literature at San Diego State University. He works on Shakespeare, Milton and literature on terrorism.


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