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Librarian explains issues with E-books and academia

<ky Albitz, from the Electronic Resources and Copyright Library at Pennsylvania State University, visited the Gould Library Athenaeum to discuss the current state of E-books in academic institutions. Her lecture, which took place on Jan. 17, covered everything from the humble origins of the media form to the unforeseen consequences that may arise decades from now as a result of today’s system.

Albitz has been an Electronic Resources Librarian at Penn State since 2001. Her extensive experience in the field allows her to break down the complex and wide-ranging state of electronic resources and explain it with clarity. Albitz began by addressing the two most prominent definitions of an E-book.

One definition, she said, is a “digital book that lives on a device,” like a Kindle. This is often the first thing that comes to mind when the general public thinks of an E-book. However, the academic – and considerably broader – definition states that an E-book is a “digital file made available on a platform that has access to the Internet.” In other words, E-books in academia contain everything one would expect to find in a university library, but in many cases, in far greater volume.

E-books, said Albitz, “have been around as long as electronic resources have been available, starting with CD-ROMs.” Early forms included Early English literature on EEBO, computer manuals on Safari, and Eighteenth Century Collections online (ECCO). Then, about eight years ago, NetLibrary came onto the scene. Though it resembled modern sources to some degree, it ultimately gave a negative impression of the E-book experience. This was due in large part to the program’s refusal to allow more than one user to access a specific book at one time.

However, the media form has made many great strides since the early days of NetLibrary. Presently, an institution can choose from four main academic E-book models, including aggregated packages/products, publisher based packages, title-by-title selection, and patron-driven access. These models all have positives and drawbacks that make selecting one a difficult task for any library.

The library system at Penn State decided to utilize the patron-driven access model. For this model, the institution sets the number of times that an individual may view a specific resource before that institution automatically purchases it. A single “viewing” of a resource (defined by ten minutes or more of use) costs the institution 10-15% of the print cost. If the set number of views for that resource is two, for example, then the institution would pay the discounted price for the first two views then, if it is used a third time, the institution would automatically buy the resource.

This style of access makes it so that schools do not spend exorbitant sums of money on resources in a package deal that are rarely (if ever) used. Albitz stated that this model is “the hot thing right now in libraries.”
Albitz then took a step back from the specifics of E-books to illustrate for her audience the pros and cons of the media form. The positives include 24/7 access, full-text searchable content and relief for libraries that are struggling to find physical shelving space. The negatives include having to read on a computer screen, limited content (particularly in the arts) and delays in e-publication well after print versions have become available.
In light of all these facts, how does an institution such as Carleton College decide which resources to obtain and which to avoid? Ultimately it comes down to the school’s goals as a community. The college’s mission, input of faculty and students, and various technical specifics are all factors that play a role in the decision. A Carleton task force has been assembled to analyze all of the potential factors and, over the next two years, work with faculty and students to try to find the program that best fits the college. This task force will seek an E-book model that will provide Carls with the necessary resources to facilitate an outstanding teaching and learning environment.

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