Category Archives: Books

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 Half.com, 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 InsideHigherEd.com. 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.)

Selective Perceptions (on Ebooks and the New Resource Management)

I went to a packed panel at Midwinter sponsored by the ALCTS Collection Management and Development Section called “Is Selection Dead?” Rick Anderson (University of Utah), Steve Bosch (University of Arizona), Nancy Gibbs (Duke University) and Reeta Sinha (YBP) all concluded (with varying levels of acceptance) that, yeah, it is. (For an excellent summary of their comments and the Q&A that followed, see Josh Hadro’s report in Library Journal.) They confronted the audience with the big issues, but the audience’s questions reflected where we’re at on the ground – our discomfort with leaving preservation to vendors and Google, our frustration with changing patterns of research, our unwillingness to discard our professional traditions, and our enduring belief in that perfect source.

Anderson pointed out that now, between Google Books and HathiTrust and other, similar megasites dedicated to digitized content, we’re getting closer and closer to what he’s defined as libraries’ “unattainable ideal” – to make it possible for patrons to find every piece of information and be able to obtain it right when they find it. There’s no need to select when it’s so easy to access and append content, and when information about content (as well as harvesting and ingesting that information) is cheap or free.

Besides, no one thinks about starting information searches with local library collections anymore. Cathy De Rosa emphasized this in her presentation of the 2010 OCLC Perceptions survey at Midwinter on Saturday. Instead, we start with Google or something like it – something global, sometimes (but not necessarily) focused on a particular facet of the world of information (Amazon.com, IMDB, Wikipedia). Bosch called this “network level discovery,” and showed us a graph of the top-used internet sites: no .edu or library-related site (including WorldCat.org) even comes close to the network traffic of sites like Google and Yahoo!.

I do this, too: when I’m looking for something, my first action is to open a browser and do a keyword search of a huge, free database of information. Then I drill down to specific items I want to locate: things in my local library, or in a database which requires me to authenticate if I want access. I do this both because it’s easy and because it works: if I started with my library catalog I’d be confronted with arcane database software that fails miserably when asked to provide reasonable results for known items and topical searches alike.

If this makes us uncomfortable, we should remember that we as librarians have had a somewhat schizophrenic relationship with local collections for years now: we have advocated for bigger and more from database vendors (Gilbert 2010) and encouraged our users to go beyond our local collections with statewide resource sharing and interlibrary loan (“fuzzy walls,” Anderson called them). Many of us have started cutting local collecting to rely on shared content when possible, too.

There are good economic reasons behind this, and not just related to the skyrocketing costs of materials. Cut budgets mean less for books but less for people, too. Sinha pointed out that librarians who do collection development are often assigned half a dozen or more departments, some in which they have no expertise whatever, on top of being expected to work reference, do instruction, and, in many academic libraries, pursue their own research agendas. Such librarians are merely guessing what to buy, said Anderson, and, in many cases, guessing wrong. Big deals and approval plans began the end of selection, Bosch said; patron-driven acquisitions and print-on-demand will kill it entirely.

Anderson, Bosch and Gibbs said they still do some kind of collection gatekeeping, where librarians choose subject areas and other parameters for ebook metadata, create approval plan profiles, and evaluate packages even if they don’t evaluate individual titles (Nancy Gibbs called this “pre-selection”). So selection isn’t completely dead, but only areas like Special Collections will continue to engage in traditional selection, according to Gibbs.

One of the big surprises from this panel for me was that the big research libraries have already embraced electronic as the preferred format not just for journals, now, but for books. Meaning if a faculty member or selector asks that a title be added to the library’s collection, these libraries automatically buy the ebook if that format is available, unless the print book is specifically requested. Some libraries even require selectors to submit written justifications if they request a title in print.

The 2010 OCLC Perceptions survey shows that even more people equate libraries with books now than in 2005, and I asked the panelists what implications this has for our transition to primarily electronic content. I was told that “Ebooks are books, too” and that students don’t really read books anyway – they “interrogate” them, like databases, so having them electronically is actually better. The only way to do a full-text search of a print book is to read the whole thing, Bosch said. Anderson, in his presentation, said that we need to move towards ebooks as quickly as possible, despite their drawbacks. In response to my question, he said that the Perceptions survey was recording exactly that – perceptions. People want to see books when they walk in to libraries, but a lot of the volumes they see are reference books and bound journals, not the kind of books they might actually use.

So instead of selection or collection we’re moving to what Bosch called “resource management” – managing metadata and authentication for delivery at the point of discovery. After the panel, a colleague pointed out that this approach to library collections really only works for certain kinds of institutions and certain kinds of library users. I suspect she’s right – that it only works for people with a certain type of academic information need who are used to formulating sophisticated searches for specific information. Others still need physical browsing and the safeguards against information overload that local collecting can provide.

When I got back from Midwinter I talked to a friend of mine, a graduate student, about the shift to ebooks. His response was, hey, I love books, but things change. Books haven’t been around forever. He’s right: the idea that we can’t adapt to ebooks or that something inherent will be lost without physical volumes is absurd. But he doesn’t have an ereader and has no intention of buying one. The reality is that for most people, for most collections, the infrastructure simply doesn’t exist to support the wholesale transition to ebooks, “resource management” and delivery at the point of discovery. Our catalogs don’t adequately support online browsing, and ebook platforms don’t support the kind of engagement with texts that people need: the ability to annotate, share, and hoard or the ability to print when it’s desired. Keyword searching is not the same as skimming or flipping. And sometimes when I have a book I don’t want to interrogate it – I simply want to read.

Experience vs. Reality

Last week I was at the ARLIS/NA Midstates Chapter fall meeting, graciously hosted by Chapter president Rebecca Price and the University of Michigan Libraries. In a panel discussion, Ray Silverman (director of the Museum Studies program at the University of Michigan) and Jennifer Gustafson (Practicum Coordinator for the School of Library & Information Science at Wayne State University) talked about the relationship between the digital and the real and its impact on museums as well as libraries.

Museums, they said, are getting away from the object and moving towards the experience, and they discussed The Henry Ford (no longer the Henry Ford Museum and Greenfield Village) as an example. There, a $32 admission fee provides access to a range of experiences, from riding in a Model T to playing historic baseball.

Libraries, however, are also moving this direction. A great divestiture of physical collections is underway in the wake of our shift to the electronic and in preparation for – what? Several librarians at the conference discussed the wholesale de-accessioning of visual resources collections, something that has been underway for years now. Tony White, director of the Fine Arts Library at Indiana University, talked about the demise of the branch library and how he fears his library (now that it has absorbed the Visual Resources Center) may not be freestanding for much longer. Price brought up the de-duping proposal being discussed by the CICs: it begins with journals, but ends, we imagine, with thinner and more mobile physical collections, cooperatively owned, and research libraries whose floors of stacks have been transformed into flexible learning commons designed to hold the experiences of different audiences – first-year students, graduate students, faculty.

This is not only going on in the ARL libraries of the world – in my own mid-sized academic library we recently closed a branch (our science library) and have undertaken, along with other Ohio academic libraries, a massive deduping project, beginning with journals.

And what about roles? Silverman pointed out that as museums shift to providing experiences, curators actually become more like librarians, who have traditionally been less focused on collecting objects (though collect we do) and more on helping people. And White predicts that librarians’ roles as collection specialists will become a thing of the past as consolidated collections require less distributed expertise. Several weeks ago I blogged about this very future for electronic resources, though the reality on the ground right now makes it seem rather distant.

Ironically, Silverman predicted a “re-discovery of the real” – that the object itself will become more important than it’s ever been. But “the books are going,” as Price said. For libraries, what form will that object take when the books are gone? Will we create experiences with our special collections? Prize the digital object instead of the physical? Remember, for many, libraries’ brand is still books, and some people still want them, just like some museum-goers still want art. It would be awful to re-discover this reality only after the books are gone.