E-books are educational, effective, easy-to-use (for the most part), expeditious – and are becoming increasingly essential for teaching and learning. But they can also be exorbitant, exasperating and are sometimes inexplicably unavailable at all. They infuriate librarians but we’d be at a loss without them, particularly in a pandemic. This article gives a Librarian’s view on the benefits and (considerable) challenges of working with e-books…
Effective, Easy to use and Expeditious?
There’s no doubt that e-books have transformed the learning landscape. The Library now provides access to over 1.1 million e-books. E-books are accessible by any member of the Warwick community, anywhere in the world at any time (licence permitting). E-books are expeditious; the library can purchase e-books quickly – they often are available within a week, compared to the three or four weeks required for print copies. Yes, it can be exasperating, when we’ve only been able to afford a restrictive licence and you have to wait your turn to access an e-book. But e-book content is so much more accessible than a print copy and is readily searchable too. It’s really easy to locate quick quotes for an essay via an e-book when you’re short on time. There’s no need to travel to and from campus to return or borrow e-books and they’ve never been subjected to fines.
It sometimes takes a little time to become used to the ‘look and feel’ of different e-book platforms that we use. Librarians seek content where we can find it; so sometimes it can be frustrating where there’s no option for downloading; or there’s only single user access but we’re hoping that some access is better than no access at all. We’ll always seek the most liberal licence possible to maximise an e-book’s effectiveness for our users.
The Library have recently launched a fabulous playlist of videos that provide more familiarisation with e-book use. Assistance is offered with the location of e-books; and guidance given to searching, making notes and highlighting content within them. Check them out and become an expert e-book user!
Books from publishers that are not so heavily used tend to be more readily available for purchase – so we are able to continue to provide a broad and varied range of content, not just key textbooks. Reference material is also much more accessible over an e-platform. Granted, the multi-volume print encyclopaedias that we purchased in ‘yesteryear’ sit on the Library shelves gathering dust. Now, if you want to get on top of the theory, then it’s really quick and easy to consult our many online reference books. We all have our favourites, but as a Social Science Librarian, my ‘go to tomes’ include the Oxford Research Encyclopedias, the Oxford Handbooks and Oxford Bibliographies. The International Encyclopedia of the Social & Behavioral Sciences is great too. If I’m just clarifying a definition then I’ll just use the Oxford Reference collection.
Not all e-books are exorbitant, most are expensive; but some key texts can be prohibitively expensive. The Library cannot purchase the same e-book version as you might see quoted on Amazon for a Kindle – institutional licences are usually considerably more expensive. But the Library is prioritising the acquisition of e-books for essential readings – we are putting as much of our funds as we can towards this, and we are using new and innovative ways to acquire e-books which are simply unavailable in the usual way. We are using third party providers who negotiate access to e-books directly with publishers, and we have worked with Departments to identify the most important texts to acquire in this way.
The most expensive single title we have purchased this year was a key Economics textbook: Carlin and Soskice: Macroeconomics which was £20,000 for 2020/21 access. We worked with the Economics Department to identify which of the textbooks they recommend to students would be most useful as an e-book – the costs were simply too prohibitive for us to be able to purchase them all.
In the last few days more media attention has being given to the excessive pricing of e-books. We hope that a national debate may help us to work with Universities and publishers across the sector to develop more cost-effective ways for us to purchase the e-books you need.
Core texts from publishers are often not available for institutional purchase. Frequently Librarians receive requests for modestly priced Kindle books or single e-copies advertised on a publisher website. But as soon as we investigate institutional purchase, the pricing structure changes.
Librarians may find individual key texts locked away in exorbitant subject packages or with restrictive licences. Is it worth paying £875 for a single user licence of an Applied Linguistics text? Everyone hates single user licences; particularly students on large modules, but for a key text which is essential reading, maybe some e-book access is better than none at all?
Sometimes individual key texts are locked away in very expensive publisher-defined packages – these can be subject packages such as Oxford Law Trove and Oxford Politics Trove or interdisciplinary ‘key’ textbook packages such as Cambridge Core. We often can’t afford the whole package and the option to purchase one or more titles from within the package is not offered.
But we are always mindful of student needs and this year we have invested in a number of these publisher packages to support learning and teaching. For example, the only way to obtain the key texts for Politics from Oxford University Press during the pandemic was to spend £45k to obtain Politics Trove for a year. This subject package contains 36 books. It is cross-searchable and is a fantastic resource but comes with a hefty price. We have similarly invested in Cambridge Core and Oxford Law Trove. These are fabulous and useful resources – but the Library doesn’t even get to keep the e-books in perpetuity. Once we stop subscribing, access stops.
E-books are Essential.
But, despite the exasperation with restricted licences and the exorbitant costs of some titles, we know that the flexibility and accessibility of e-books make them essential for students and so we are committed to providing as many as we can to support learning and teaching at the University.
Particularly during this most challenging of years, with many of us working/studying from home for periods of time, e-books are invaluable. Our Acquisitions Team aim to purchase e-copies of all essential reading on your Reading Lists where it’s available from the publishers. If they can’t locate e-copies, then they look into scanning core chapters.
So, we’ll manage our exasperation and we’ll do our very best to provide the e-books you need in a timely way. If you’re feeling frustrated with lack of e-access to a particular text then do let your Academic Support Librarian know; we often can improve availability.