by: Peter C. Herman
For the past few years, both the California State University and the
University of California libraries have been experimenting with packages that
replace paper books with e-books. The advantages are obvious. With e-books, you
no longer have to schlep to a library to take out a book. You just log on from
whatever device connects you to the web, at whatever time and in whatever state
of dress, and voila! the book appears on your screen.
But the real attraction is price. Library budgets, along with university
budgets, have been slashed, and such companies as Pearson and Elsevier offer
e-book packages that make it possible to gain access (I’ll explain the awkward
syntax in a moment) to lots of 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, all 23 CSU’s, for instance, share a single
e-book. That’s the theory, at least. The reality is very different.
In ancient days of yore, a library bought a book from either the publisher or
a vendor, and then did with it whatever it wanted. Patrons could borrow the
book, read it at leisure, renew it, or copy excerpts. Libraries shared books
they didn’t own through interlibrary loan. But that’s not how e-books
Instead, a library pays to access a data file by one of two routes: “PDA,” or
“Patron-Driven Acquisition,” in which a vendor makes available a variety of
e-books, and a certain number of “uses” (the definition varies) triggers a
purchase, or a subscription to an e-library that does not involve any mechanism
for buying the e-book. Both avenues come loaded with all sorts of problems.
First, reading an e-book is a different, and lesser, experience that reading
a paper book, just as watching
a movie at home differs from watching one in a theatre.
There’s a huge difference between casual and college reading, and recent
studies prove beyond doubt that while e-books are perfectly fine 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 “screen-based
reading can dull 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 proved that online reading
encourages skimming while discouraging in-depth or concentrated reading.
The solution might be to print out the chapters you want to read. But e-book
packages intentionally make that as difficult as possible.
Paper books have no limitations since the library owns the book. But as
Clifford Lynch recently put
it, “nobody buys an e-book: one licenses it under typically very
complex terms that constrain what you are allowed 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,
“though some publishers have set more restrictive limits,” and allows you to
copy only 15 percent of a book, text only, no illustrations.
At SDSU, Ebrary also limits the number of pages you can download. The amount
varies by publisher. One book allows up to 89 pages, but with another, Victoria
Kahn’s The Crisis of Political Obligation in England, an
especially complex work with very long chapters, you get only 19 pages, and the
printout comes defaced with a code plastered across the page. There’s also a
limit to how many pages you can download per session, and the total is not
large. I downloaded less than 20 pages before I exceeded my quota.
E-books also do not circulate beyond the institution, which effectively kills
interlibrary loan. As for one book serving the entire CSU or UC systems, many
come with one-user restrictions, which means that only one user at a time in the
CSU or the UC can read the book. Of course, Ebrary might 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 vendor can remove one at their discretion,
without notice. So one day you can access a book, the next day, it has
E-books prevent deep reading, their use is highly restricted, and they can
vanish without notice, so why are the CSU and the UC libraries experimenting
with replacing paper with computer files? Is the e-book phenomenon yet another
example of university administrators chasing after the latest e-fad? Like MOOCs
(which even Sebastian Thrun of Udacity called “a
lousy product”), e-books trade something that works for something that
doesn’t, and even worse, threaten to destroy the very notion of a library.
What’s the attraction?
The answer is that e-books seem like a cheap way to access hundreds, if not
thousands, of expensive books essential for research and teaching. Right now,
the subscription packages Proquest and Ebsco offer may sound like they cost a
lot (between $500-$800,000 a year), but the price is “extremely low relative to
the number of books acquired,” to quote the CSU report on the e-book pilot
project. The average cost per book for Ebrary’s package is between $5 and $9, a
spectacular savings given that the average price for a hardcover scholarly book
in the humanities is around $100, and many are much more expensive.
Then again, payday
loans also seem like a cheap way to deal with, shall we say, a period of
financial embarrassment. But the long-term costs of these loans can be ruinous,
and the same goes of e-journal article packages. In the beginning they too were
priced “extremely low relative to the number” of journals acquired. But they
did not stay “extremely low” for long. Today, the exorbitant
amounts such companies as Elsevier and Springer charge eat up a greater and
greater percentage of library budgets, and their
contracts usually last for 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, university
libraries are now trapped, since they cannot risk losing access to all the major
journals. As prices rise and budgets either stay the same or drop, a greater
and greater percentage goes toward servicing the package journal subscription,
less and less toward staffing, hours, and the like.
The same thing will happen with e-book packages. In the past, once the
library purchased the book, that was the end of the transaction. The library
didn’t have to keep sending the publisher money to keep the book in circulation.
No matter what happened, no matter how great the budget cut, the book stayed in
the library, because the library owned it.
But that is not the case with an e-book subscription. Right now, prices seem
entirely reasonable, but once a library or a library system gets hooked, then
they must continually pay the rising subscription fee or else a huge number of
books will just disappear. With a traditional book, the costs end once the
purchase is complete. But with e-book packages, the costs never end. They just
Even worse, by replacing paper books with e-book packages, university
libraries will have outsourced the collection of knowledge to multinational,
private corporations whose primary goal is not advancing knowledge, but profits.
E-book packages are another step in transforming libraries from centers of
scholarship, teaching and research into cash cows for Proquest’s bottom
Why would libraries even consider such a Faustian deal? Simple: they are
trying to make the best of a very bad situation. University budgets have in no
way recovered from the financial crash, which reduced funding by two billion dollars.
True, some money has been restored, but the CSU’s budget now matches what we had
in 2007, and we have to teach 90,000 more students. If e-book packages sound
like a poor idea, then the answer is to restore higher education funding to a
level where we don’t have to make such terrible decisions.
Herman is a professor of English Literature at San
Diego State University. He works on Shakespeare, Milton, and the literature
from: Times of San Diego