We need to talk about ebooks

The Irish Library community has recently called on the Government, publishers and other stakeholders to recognise, and take action against, the electronic content crisis which has been exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic. Some of the primary challenges include:

  • Titles that are not available in ebook format
  • Titles that are available as ebooks but are not available via an institutional licence
  • Titles that are available via an institutional licence but are excessive in price

When the COVID-19 pandemic forced us to close the Library doors, we moved quickly to ensure we could supply access to the ebooks required. On March 12th, we issued a call to undergraduate and postgraduate Directors of Teaching and Learning and a second call on April 28th, to Directors of Research to submit requests for ebooks required to support learning and research. As a result of these calls, during the first six months of the pandemic, we delivered access to 1,500 titles. Costs ranged from an average of €130 to €1,500 per title [1].

The following provides further context so that academic staff can understand why it is necessary to engage as early possible with their Subject Librarian regarding essential books required for 2020/21. There may be occasions when we are unable to provide access to the titles required and it may be necessary to consider recommending alternative titles to students.

Titles that are not available in ebook format

Despite the huge growth in ebooks in the last ten years, there are still many titles that are not available as ebooks, particularly older publications or those published by smaller publishers. Prior to the pandemic, the solution to this was to purchase multiple print copies for short-loan borrowing for rapid circulation. However, this is not a viable solution in the current circumstances where teaching, for many programmes, is being delivered primarily online. Also, we need to be mindful of those students who are not able to come on campus for health and safety reasons.

Titles available as ebooks – but not for sale to Libraries

It is possible for an ebook to be available for a student to purchase directly, for example, direct to their Kindle and at the same time, for that exact title not to be available through an institutional licence. In theory, students can purchase their own copy. However in practice, this is not an option for everyone; this results in an inequitable situation whereby essential texts are out of reach for students who don’t have the financial means to purchase them.

Books available as e-textbooks – at unsustainable prices

Some academic textbook publishers traditionally sell their titles on a ‘direct to reader’ basis. These publishers are willing to sell institutional licences for the e-textbook versions of books, through aggregators such as Kortext, Vitalsource and BibliU. However, the pricing for these institutional licences reflects the publishers’ expectation of the loss of potential sales had they been sold directly to students. As a result, pricing is based on a ‘per student/per year’ basis and therefore, can be extremely high [2].

In recent months we have completed market research with these suppliers of electronic textbooks, to investigate licensing models, access arrangements and pricing. In the context of the emerging and rapidly changing online teaching requirements, the Library allocated funding to secure access to the essential books for the first Semester of 2020/21. However, the Library has serious concerns about the financial sustainability of supporting recurring, annual costs associated with acquiring ebooks available via the ‘per student/per year’ access model. As a result, we can not guarantee access to these titles.

Working together to secure access to the ebooks that best support the curriculum

If a title on your reading list falls under any of the ‘challenging categories’, your Subject Librarian will get in touch to discuss potential solutions, including:

  • Recommending alternative titles which the Library already subscribes to in electronic format
  • Digitising a single chapter for access via Blackboard. Under the terms of the University’s licence with the Irish Copyright Licensing Agency, we can digitise one chapter or up to 10% of a book we hold in print and make this available via Blackboard.

As we have outlined, there are substantial challenges afoot in the academic ebook environment. Early engagement with your Subject Librarian will help ensure reading list material is available to students when they need it.

Finally, if you are an author of an academic text, we would encourage you to ensure your publisher is making that book available for sale on an institutional licence basis and at a reasonable cost to the university.

[1] €130 is the average cost of an ebook available on a standard single user institutional licence.

[2] €1,500 is the average cost of an e book available on a ‘per student/per year’ access model.