2 February 2010
One of the things that I’ve been wondering (e.g. in re my last post on serials subscription economics) is how this rent v. own dichotomy for books is going to play out.
Because the fact that e-resources subscriptions are like renting, not like owning, is very salient to librarians, and was not obvious to some of my non-librarian friends — but it will be. Because we are all eBook owners now*, so people are tripping over this issue more and more. The inability to lend his electronic library really bugs my friend John, and the related DRM issues really bug another, famous John.**
This seems to me like a good thing because what we really need is not so much a set of policies as a cultural consensus — what does it mean to purchase, to access, a book? How does intellectual property interact with ownership, copying, access, all those strange things that are constrained differently when property is physical? What do, and what should, we expect in terms of our interactions with electronic resources? Those strike me as questions that can’t be answered inside institutions, can’t be answered until they’re crowdsourced, munched on by the slow machinery of culture until new paradigms emerge.
[*] In point of fact I’m not. Come back to me when there’s something with both eInk and good PDF support, including annotations. Or when you feel like giving me one for free.
[**] Sorry, John-that-I-know. When your robot army crushes the world beneath its overlordly boot, you, too, will be famous.
26 January 2010
So the husband and I were talking yesterday about the new EBSCO monopoly on certain periodicals, after I read Dorothea Salo’s post on the matter (now BoingBoinged). And he was wondering, so really, what’s the issue here? What’s the appeal of these database vendors? And a BoingBoing commenter wonders, “the content providers have decided to sell their content through only one vendor…is that not their right?”
Salo addresses some of this in a follow-up post, but I want to as well — a scattershot Things What Might Not Be Apparent If You Are Not A Librarian post.
* One of the intriguing aspects of getting your journal access electronically is that it’s more like renting than owning. Different vendors may have rights to different date ranges of the back issues, and you may have any number of contractual limitations on your database access, and if you stop having a contract with a vendor, then no, you might not have access to the back issues you had access to yesterday. It’s not like a print collection, where you paid to buy the physical thing — and it came with limitations, like lack of fulltext search and the need for ever-increasing shelf space to store — but you *have* the thing until it falls to pieces, anyway, even if you cancel the subscription. You stop leasing your database access, you no longer have back issues. Now, maybe you get them through another vendor — if you have contracts with multiple vendors, and publishers have contracts with multiple vendors, then you may still have access through other means, albeit not necessarily to the same range of back issues or through the same interface or with the same features.
* But maybe you don’t have access through another vendor, and that’s the issue with the current EBSCO deal. If you want to have access to certain publications, you have to deal with EBSCO. And this connects with two other issues:
1) EBSCO, as a monopoly power, can set forth whatever crazy terms it wants. (“But if they’re too crazy you can just refuse,” I hear you saying. Yes, but see below.) For instance, maybe you just want to read Time, but they will only sell you Time in a package deal containing dozens of other titles such Injury and Abdominal Imaging and The Lady’s Magazine or Polite Companion for the Fair Sex and you really, honestly, do not care about these publications (all real EBSCO titles fyi), but you have to pay for them if you want Time.
2) Now replace Time with, say, Science or Nature or whatever the incredibly critical journal is that your patrons absolutely cannot live without. The current EBSCO monopoly is over popular press magazines, and I imagine it will be incredibly irritating to public libraries who can no longer afford (see below) to stock them, but if you are a university and your library cannot afford to stock the marquee journals for your top academic programs, this goes way beyond “irritating”. So take the current EBSCO deal as a harbinger of things to come, and you see why it’s worth setting up some barricades.
* I owe you one more “see below”, and that’s cost. Serials are very expensive. People have been cancelling print subscriptions to make way for them, sure, but they’ve also been scaling back their monograph acquisitions just to keep up with serials. Serials prices have escalated enormously and library budgets, well, haven’t. MIT spends seven million a year on serials — yes, they’re big, and yes, as a nearly-all-science institution they depend unusually heavily on them — but this should give you a sense of the absurdly large chunks of change involved.
The thing that should make this — from your perspective, from a patron perspective, not just a librarian perspective — a problem, the thing that should make this more than something to brush off as businesses-doing-business — is that monopoly power over access to key periodicals takes away a major chunk of libraries’ negotiating power, when their institutional contexts may not allow them not to say no to those periodicals, and when serials budgets are already cannibalizing everything in their path. What you will see, as a patron, is non-serials acquisitions and services being cut merely to maintain the status quo of subscriptions. And if that is not something you like, librarians are going to need to know that their institutions will back them up if they need to take scorched-earth negotiating positions with vendors.
8 October 2009
Thing-ology has an interesting post on the economics of ebooks in libraries. They argue, essentially, that libraries need site-licensed copies of ebooks rather than ones tied to specific physical devices; this will split the library and direct-to-consumer ebook markets and allow for runaway rental/licensing costs for library ebooks. There’s an apt comparison to runaway journal costs for academic libraries.
I think this argument has a lot of merit to it (although I do think the markets aren’t entirely split, and the existence of the consumer market puts a cap on the licensed market; your site license for 25 simultaneous uses can’t cost much more than 25 direct-to-consumer, device-linked copies before buyers start fleeing). It also reminds me of the horrible angst that is the textbook market — it points out that for many books prices are held down because used books compete with new, and this downward pressure stops holding in a rental-based model, because there is no secondary market. There is, of course, a thriving market in used textbooks, but one which publishers vigorously combat via incompatible new editions, included software, and (soon and increasingly, I’m sure) digital textbooks on a rental model — just like the ebooks picture Thing-ology paints for the library.
12 July 2009
The part I’ve been munching through: apparently it’s really, really hard for libraries to keep track of their electronic serials and database usage. If you want to know which of the things you’re subscribed to are actually getting used and how (and what it’s costing you), strap yourself in for a long ride, because ILSes don’t have rich enough functionality to harvest that information for you. Some people buy additional systems on top to help, but even those require a lot of work if you want to extract useful data.
There are some good reasons for this. Libraries frequently subscribe to databases or journals as bundles (and may be required to do so by the publisher), and the usage codes may not disaggregate resources within the bundle. Libraries may subscribe as part of consortia, but need to extract data for their individual institution.
Still, though. This seems like a pretty obvious thing to want to do — keep track of your actual use! So why do the tools not support it? I welcome ideas from people who actually know something (which is not me!), but in the meantime, I’ll brainstorm some possibilities…
- It’s a genuinely hard technical problem. (And there are a lot of problems that need to be solved here — not just capturing the data, from subscription systems that apparently don’t natively provide it, but organizing it into a database that answers users’ questions, has a usable front end, and spits out data in formats useful for budgeters and other decisionmakers. That’s not one system — that’s multiple interacting systems, possibly produced by different organizations — and potentially problems that have to be re-solved for every database vendor and ILS combination. OK, it’s even harder than I realized when I started this bullet point and was just thinking about algorithms.)
- Libraries don’t prioritize recordkeeping and review of their serials and databases enough to exert pressure (market, social, cultural) on companies to develop this feature.
- ILSes offer a tremendous number of features; while libraries might want better serials tracking, they care more about those other features, so it’s those things that ILSes are competing on. (Although this doesn’t answer why an ILS that does well on those things, *and* on serials, doesn’t emerge and stomp on its competitors. But maybe it’s too hard (algorithmically or monetarily) to do that.)
- This is a place where the culture clash between librarians and programmers is showing; maybe they just aren’t talking to one another enough for the user needs to become apparent. Again, you’d think this would be a place where the company (or open source project) that does do a good user needs analysis to eat its competition — and there are niches where librarians and programmers overlap — but all too often they don’t seem to even have a common vocabulary.