Category Archives: Books

Publishing Fat Cats, Collection Curation, and Serving Today’s Patron

ACRLog welcomes a guest post from Heidi Steiner, Distance Learning Librarian at Norwich University.

The greatest reflection I find myself having following this year’s LJ/SLJ Ebook Summit is only vaguely about ebooks. Instead my mind is circling around balance. I tuned in to the “Marketing Ebooks to Students” panel ready for ideas about how I can get the online students I work with even more sold on ebooks to fill their immediate needs. I greatly enjoy Library Babel Fish and was excited to hear Barbara Fister’s perspective, which turned out to be: “I’m not quite ready to market ebooks to my students yet.” Barbara raised many questions we should all be thinking about. Her probing questions touched on patron privacy, censorship, preservation, sharing, putting money into yet more temporary licensed bundles, the long-term ramifications of providing patron driven acquisitions for last-minute needs, curating collections for the future, and talking to our patrons, both students and faculty, about what they really want. As a result, my brain is now in a seemingly inescapable conundrum.

While Barbara was speaking, I found myself focusing on her mentions of patron driven acquisitions (PDA) and trying to rectify her well-argued thoughts with my personal mental framework around PDA. Most people probably think of patron driven acquisitions in the most traditional sense: patrons initiating purchases of books for the physical collection. This may be in place via request buttons in the library catalog or some other mechanism. With ebooks in the fold, there are also plenty of libraries experimenting with patron driven ebook acquisitions. In my mind, I go directly to the model of PDA we use at my library, which is built around on-demand ebook rentals. Herein lies where my internal struggle begins. How do we balance standing up to the man, curating collections for the future, and serving the patrons we have now?

At Norwich University we serve an array of unique populations, including corps of cadets and civilian on-campus undergraduates and entirely online students in the School of Graduate and Continuing Studies. Our online students are on a tight course schedule with most in 6-credit hour, 11-week graduate courses, many with steady research requirements. At the library, we are constantly looking for ways to make necessary resources available quickly and seamlessly for all our patrons, but the online students pose the greatest challenge. This is notably important considering the impossibilities of physical interlibrary loan for books when students are around the globe. Collection and content curation can only take a small library so far, especially in serving such a diverse group of patrons. For us, patron driven acquisitions, specifically ebook rentals facilitated with Ebook Library (EBL), are a stop gap in the hole of needs and expectations. We choose what of the EBL catalog to make visible in our collection, patrons can see five minute previews of any given ebook and then request a loan. Ebook rentals default to a week and we pay a percentage of the ebook’s retail price with each rental instance. A purchase trigger goes off after the third rental to stay cost-effective. In my mind, our model of PDA at Norwich is more easily equated with interlibrary loan than collection development.

I often cannot help but ask myself why we are throwing money at publishers to buy books with roughly a 30-40% chance of circulating, when we can provide students with on-demand rentals thus guaranteeing use. What are we giving up by feeding the fat cat publishers and using collection development policies to make a best guess at what might get used one day? It’s a double-edged sword. We are feeding an industry that restricts knowledge to only those with access, while still curating a collection for the future, but may not be providing the resources our patrons need now; it is impossible to predict each possible need. On the flipside, what are we giving up with PDA in any of its possible incarnations? Depending on the scenario, it could be a lot or a little. PDA could mean sacrificing the integrity of our future collection, but it can also mean a satisfy patron today and knowing money spent was actually used for something. Fister’s short yet very powerful talk definitely provides some further clues to both answers, but it seems to me that nothing is that cut and dry.

We are maintaining balance through a combination of traditional, liaison program based collection development and patron driven ebook rentals at Norwich, but I cannot honestly say we are doing much to fight the fat cats…yet. In her talk, Fister argued we should be reinventing the academic monograph, as we are already spending money on books and just might posses the expertise to make it happen. This is an awesome thought and worthy quest, but where do small libraries fall in scholarly content creation? Certainly we can load open access ebook records into our catalogs, as Fister suggests. We can also work towards open access awareness, encourage and push publication in open access journals with our faculty and practice it ourselves, but what role can small college and university and libraries legitimately play in production?

I want to cultivate services that are right for our patrons now, but also desire building a library that is sustainable into the future. How are your libraries reacting as publishers keep an iron fist and ebooks proliferate, all while patron driven acquisitions meet immediate needs? Where do you find balance?

Finding Footnotes and Chasing Citations

This week’s New York Times Book Review includes an essay by Alexandra Horowitz straightforwardly-titled Will the E-Book Kill the Footnote?, in which she laments that footnotes become endnotes when books move from paper to screen. Horowitz suggests that while this change means that the main text of a book may be more easily read from start to finish, something is lost when the intrusive interruption of a footnote morph into the more easily ignored endnote. After all, how many people actually read endnotes?

This article reminded me of one published last year in the Chronicle of Higher Ed about link rot and footnote flight (paywall alert), which made some of the same points for academic texts that Horowitz makes for popular books: electronic writing may suffer from both losing footnotes as well as from link rot, in which hyperlinks go dead over time as the site or page linked to is moved or abandoned.

Both the conversion of footnotes to endnotes and link rot can affect anyone reading a text, scholars and students alike. For scholars, I have to assume that if the information is valuable enough to be used in a research project, the researcher will have the tenacity to track down the necessary sources, whether that means jumping back and forth between endnotes and the main text or searching for the new home of a page at the dead end of a link. While it can sometimes be annoying to have to spend time chasing citations, I think many scholars actually enjoy this kind of work (or maybe I’m just looking at the task through my librarian-glasses?).

Students are busy, so I’d bet that they’re less invested in reading endnotes in electronic texts (and even footnotes in print books), and more likely to see them as an aside or as unnecessary. Of course students are very familiar with jumping from link to link on the web, and now that web browsers support tabbed browsing the process of moving between hyperlinks and the main text can come very close to the experience of reading a print volume with footnotes. And what about Wikipedia, where hyperlinks and endnotes abound? It’s easy to draw parallels between the Notes and References at the bottom of most Wikipedia entries and the same in scholarly texts. Maybe electronic texts can effectively be used to encourage students to chase down those citations and read those extra words in footnotes and endnotes.

Tackling Textbooks

Many libraries grapple with whether to buy textbooks to put on reserve for students to use. At my college we do acquire textbooks, though of course we purchase many other books for circulating use as well. I’ve usually thought about the textbook issue from the perspective of the library, for example, our materials costs vs. the relative perishability of these books. Textbooks also have an impact on our library faculty and staff: our students assume that the library has their textbook on reserve and and sometimes get frustrated when we don’t, and can take their frustration out on our library faculty and staff.

But I’m starting to think that our offering many textbooks on reserve for students to use is deflecting many of the core issues with textbooks. Recently we’ve heard our faculty lament more and more often that their students are not buying the textbook for their classes. This is not surprising: textbook prices are high and growing, and I’d guess that one of the main reasons students don’t want to buy their textbooks is that it seems like a lot of money for something they may only use in one class, especially for classes that aren’t in their major.

We are certainly helping our students when we provide textbooks on reserve for them to use, which is an important part of any college library’s mission and goals. But we’re also allowing faculty to sidestep a major and thorny issue in academic publishing: the extremely high and continuously increasing cost of textbooks.

Don’t get me wrong, I think there’s definitely value in textbooks. Writing about complex subjects and disciplines in a clear, concise way that’s appropriate for undergraduates, especially first year students, is challenging. A good textbook can be very useful for faculty teaching and students taking a course. Some textbooks are not unreasonably priced, either. But for far too many topics it seems like the textbook market is out of control, with new editions every couple of years, and costs into the hundreds of dollars.

Open access textbooks and educational materials are one way to tackle these thorny textbook issues. As we get closer to Open Access Week I’m preparing for a faculty workshop we’re planning at my library, and am beginning to read about encouraging experiments with open access textbooks and other curricular materials by librarians and faculty. Is your library working on an open access curriculum project with faculty? Please share your thoughts and lessons learned below.

Nothing Right about This Copyright Ruling

The world of copyright litigation is getting downright surreal. Recently a court struck down an appeal of a NY case involving reselling books from overseas in the U.S. Essentially, the court ruled that the first sale doctrine applies only to works manufactured in the United States. As reported in Library Journal:

The 2nd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled 2-1 in John Wiley & Sons Inc v. Supap Kirtsaeng that Kirtsaeng, a Thai man studying in the United States, infringed upon John Wiley & Sons’ copyrights when he had his family send him cheaper foreign editions of Wiley textbooks, printed by Wiley Asia, that he then resold on eBay for a profit.

Kevin Smith on the Scholarly Communications @ Duke blog has a great, clearheaded explanation of the implications of this decision for libraries:

One of the problems that the Wiley decision creates is uncertainty about library lending. Libraries do not even know, I am afraid, how much of their collections are manufactured abroad. In the Second Circuit, however, lending anything that was manufactured outside the U.S. is now in question, regardless of where it was purchased (even directly from the publisher).

Even more disturbing are the potential effects this ruling could have on students:

If libraries are in a difficult position, students may be even worse off under the Second Circuit’s ruling. Again, publishers now have an incentive to manufacture their textbooks abroad and sell them to U.S. students. Such students would no longer have the right to re-sell their textbooks or to purchase used texts.

The takeaway is that libraries may not be able to loan out books that were manufactured outside the United States, and students may not be able to buy or sell used textbooks. As Smith and others point out, there are dissenting opinions in the case, and perhaps the ruling will be challenged again in the future. But nonetheless this court ruling creates a potentially awful situation for higher education.

I’ll be interested to see whether there is any outcry over this decision from parts of the commercial sector. At my college (like many others) our bookstore buys back used textbooks to resell to students, and there are lots of thriving online book resellers like, Amazon, and AbeBooks. Perhaps these businesses will challenge the court ruling, which seems to have the potential to ruin many of them.

Every time I hear news like this I wonder how much closer it brings us to the tipping point, whether these increasingly restrictive applications of copyright law will push libraries and higher education into action against scholarly publishers who seem to be making it more and more challenging to read and use the work they publish. But it can be difficult to determine what action to take. Smith suggests a couple of possibilities, including libraries’ asking where books were manufactured before purchasing them, which I have to admit seems onerous to me. Faculty could stop assigning textbooks manufactured overseas to their students, but given the advantages to publishers of offshore manufacturing there will likely always be the need to assign at least some books that were not made in the U.S.

It’s also interesting to note that there was no coverage of this story in two of the bigger higher ed news sources, The Chron and Perhaps this, like so many other scholarly publishing issues, is thought to be more of a problem for libraries than for faculty and administrators? Though I’d hate to see libraries restricting their lending practices and students balking at buying textbooks they can’t resell, perhaps these effects would raise awareness of these issues more broadly throughout academia?

Who Reads and How?

Barry Cull, Information Services Librarian at the University of New Brunswick, Canada, has written Reading Revolutions: Online digital text and implications for reading in academe, a valuable review article on reading research that investigates important questions and provides a corrective to the idea (we’re looking at you NEA and Steve Jobs) that “no one reads anymore.”

Cull defines reading in a way that is useful for academic librarians. He includes not only leisure or literary reading, but also reading done for study and work, such as reading done by students and academics. Thank you Barry Cull! This is the main type of reading that our users do and one of the main reasons that academic libraries exist. When we look at studies on reading, we need to remember to focus on this type of reading and not simply literary or leisure reading.

As far as who reads, Cull quotes sociologist Wendy Griswold, who notes that we shouldn’t expect a majority of people to be readers anyway. In fact throughout history and across cultures reading has always been the practice of a minority. Griswold:

Only in a small portion of the world (northwest Europe, North America, and — somewhat later — Japan) and only for a brief period of time (mid–nineteenth to mid–twentieth century) was reading the standard pastime for the middle–class majority. The more typical situation is the one that is increasingly the case today: readers are an elite group that holds disproportionate political, economic, and cultural power. To recognize this as a fact is neither to decry the elitism nor to celebrate the avidity of committed readers, but it is to gain a clearer sense of where the practice of reading stands now and in the foreseeable future.

Cull makes a distinction between sustained in-depth reading such as following a narrative or closely analyzing a text, and cursory reading such as reading traffic signs or news Web sites or e–mail messages or tweets or text messages. Cull states that although in–depth reading can take place with either printed or digital text, in reviewing the research he finds it to be “a contemplative cognitive activity somewhat at odds with the Internet’s zeitgeist of immediacy.” Meaning, it can be really hard to focus on reading that scholarly monograph or research article when the tempting distractions of email, facebook, twitter etc. are constantly available in the next window.

Is facilitating sustained in-depth reading the core mission of academic libraries? Do we need to help students be aware that some electronic media often get in the way of that mission? Will there always be a minority “reading class” that reads voraciously and omnivorously, regardless of hardware or format? Do they in fact have disproportionate power? How is the activity of reading different in print and electronic formats and what implications are there for how we design our spaces and services?

(Unbeknownst to Steve Jobs, I read Cull’s article on an iPod touch.)