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I’m not quite ready to market ebooks to my users, primarily undergraduates at a liberal arts college. First, I have a few questions.
Are we willing to give up long-held principles such as guarding patron privacy as a condition that supports free inquiry, our ability to play a role in resisting censorship, and our role of preserving culture for the future – in exchange for access to more stuff right now? We are very responsive to the users we serve this very minute, but as we put a growing percentage of our resources into temporary licensed access to materials, we’re abdicating our responsibility toward users of the future. Are we okay with losing the ability to share beyond our small islands of tuition-paying customers? We seem poised to give up a lot – and the users we serve today aren’t even aware of what we’re all giving up on their behalf.
How do we really know that this is what our users want? There hasn’t been much research on how students use library books and even less research on how those uses match or don’t match the learning goals of the faculty. We could invest an enormous amount of money on access to materials our users may not even want, or we could invest a lot on patron driven acquisitions that satisfy a fleeting need to snatch some content to patch together into a paper. We need to talk to students about what they prefer and talk to faculty about what they hope to achieve when they make these assignments before we can safely assume that it makes sense to invest in licensed bundles of books.
Besides, is access to more and more stuff truly what our users want, or would they like some curation with that access? We know from Project Information Literacy that students have to actively reduce the scope of what they can chose from, to narrow the aperture, because they are so overwhelmed by the choices our dozens and dozens of journal databases present to them. Sure, it would be simpler for us to license books by the bundle or subscribe to an all you can read PDA buffet rather than go to the trouble of selecting one book at a time and having to catalog and house it. But . . . bundles, subscriptions . . . wait, haven’t we been here before with serials? It hasn’t ended well. Are we about to buy into yet another big deal we can’t refuse? Bundles that disappear if we can’t pay the rent?
my concerns have nothing to do with digital books. They have everything to do with the ways digital books are licensed and controlled. We should not put our resources into reinventing books with all the limitations that print copies have while disabling the ways that print copies can be shared and preserved. We should not participate in new ways to spend our money that limit what we can provide our future users. Instead, we should be reinventing the academic monograph as a freely shareable form of scholarship. With the amount of money we each invest into access to content and the amount of expertise that goes into making that content digitally available to our communities, we could actually do the crazy thing and set these books free.
In fact, there are some fantastic open access titles available today that you can put in your catalog today, such as the titles published by the University of Michigan in their Digital culture books imprint. Libraries, publishing professionals, and academics need to get on the same digital page if we want the scholarly books to find readers and readers find books. This is where libraries should be investing their dollars and their instructional efforts. Anything less is an abdication of our responsibility.