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If you were opening a new research library and wanted to offer only digital collections, would that even be feasible?  Is enough material available in electronic formats to support research and teaching needs?   If you only needed to provide access to journals, perhaps you could go digital, since most journals are available online or moving that way.   According to a 2007 ARL report, “Approximately 60% of the universe of some 20,000 active peer-reviewed journals is available in electronic form” (Johnson and Luther 2007, 1). Moreover, 70% of libraries’ subscriptions in 2006 were to ejournals or ejournals plus print (Johnson & Luther 8).  Users seem to prefer ejournals; a University of California study found that online journals were used 10 times more than print journals (Johnson and Luther 2007, 1).  Although we are in an “extended transition zone” from print to digital, Johnson and Luther’s study predicts that over the next 5-10 years printed journals will decline, and ultimately 95% of journals will be electronic.

With monographs, the shift from print to digital gets more complex.  Once the Google Books settlement takes effect, research libraries can subscribe to digitized, full-text versions of out-of-print books, but currently relatively few newly published scholarly ebooks are available through ebook aggregators.   A recent study by Jason Price and John McDonald of Claremont Colleges investigated whether a research library could pursue “paperless acquisition” for recently published books.  Price and McDonald compared purchases of print books made by 5 research libraries in 2006 and 2007 to the catalogs of 4 major aggregators of ebooks for libraries (EBrary, NetLibrary, EBookLibrary, and MyILibrary). They found that around 70% of the libraries’ 2006 & 2007 print acquisitions were not available through the leading ebook aggregators.  According to their preliminary analysis, there is a mismatch between the content that some publishers (such as Routledge and Oxford UP) make available through ebook aggregators and what libraries purchase; also, some university presses do not yet appear to be making their publications available as ebooks.  In some disciplines (art, music, romance literatures), over 80% of library purchases are not available electronically, while in other disciplines (economics) only 53% are not available as ebooks.  (I would bet that the exorbitant cost of licensing artworks holds back the publication of art history ebooks, even though a shift to digital may be one solution to the publishing crisis in art history.)  Price and McDonald’s findings seem to jibe with a 2006 JISC report, which concluded that “the availability of ‘core reading list’ material (that is those monographs and textbooks that are central to most academic programmes, and which are intended to be widely and intensively used by students), has been slow to develop. There are a number of reasons for this, of which the most important is probably that publishers have been reluctant to make available fully electronic versions of popular texts for fear of losing hard copy sales” (Higher Education Consultancy Group 2006).

Price and McDonald point to another significant problem with the current ebook model: Digital Rights Management, or DRM, limits the usability of ebooks.  You can do a lot with a print book: photocopy or scan as many pages as you like, scrawl in the margins, highlight passages, bookmark pages, skip around, read it in the bathtub, give it to someone else, make art out of it, etc.   Due to limitations imposed by some DRM regimes, readers of ebooks may find that they only can print a limited number of pages, have to navigate awkwardly through the book, cannot take notes or bookmark pages, and cannot give the book to someone else.  Note that these limitations are not technological; some ebook platforms allow for printing, annotating, the incorporation of multimedia content, sophisticated searching, and more. (JISC provides a handy chart for comparing ebook platforms.)  Some ebook publishers, such as Pan MacMillan, are loosening up on DRM and allowing, for instance, people to read ebooks on their iPhones  and other publishers and aggregators seem to be exploring the possibility as well (Lonsdale and Armstrong 2008).  (See The once and future e-book: on reading in the digital age for a smart take on DRM.)  Then there are problems with reading on a screen—sure, many people will read articles, emails, Twitter feeds, etc. on a screen, but most seem to prefer to read long-form pieces in print, or at least on a more compact device than a desktop or laptop.  As someone from the ebook publisher Safari noted, Safari is “used much more for practical learning where someone has a very definite problem to solve or a research topic – they spend on average about 30 minutes, so it’s not for immersive reading.”(Lonsdale and Armstrong 2008)   Ebooks face significant obstacles in terms of data standards, portability from one system to another, intellectual propery policies, publishing models, cultural resistance, and the development of appropriate e-readers and other devices (although the Kindle has reportedly been selling quite well, partly due, I suspect, to Oprah’s endorsement).

Yet there are strong indications that ebooks will play a significant role in research libraries, perhaps in the next 5 years.  According to the IDPF, ebook sales in November 2008 increased 108% from the same period in 2007.   Mark Nelson, who studies ebooks for ECAR, claims that technical obstacles and IP concerns will likely be resolved within the next 5 years, and cultural obstacles will recede as new, digitally-savvy students enter college.  As Nelson argues, “While we are already seeing the beginning of a shift to e-books on many campuses, higher education has probably up to five years to prepare for significant e-book adoption on campus—at least in the area of course materials, such as textbooks” (Nelson 2008).  OK, but what about library books? A study by Primary Research Group found that library spending on ebooks increased 36% between 2006 and 2007 and that 69% of research libraries plan to increase spending over the next two years.  In a 2008 Library Journal article, Carol Tenopir declared that “Ebooks Arrive,” pointing to users’ preference for electronic reference books and textbooks as well as publishers’ marketing of new collections of scholarly ebooks.

In any case, by 2020, it’s likely that most published resources will be in a digital format—and that ebook readers and other reading interfaces will have evolved to the point where readers are perfectly comfortable using them.  According to a study cited by Lynn Brindley of the British Library,  “by the year 2020, 40% of UK research monographs will be available in electronic format only, while a further 50% will be produced in both print and digital” (The British Library).  Yet the Report of the C-LIB Subcommittee on Digital Information Technologies in the Research Library Environment at Stanford claims that “it will require at least two generations of faculty renewal—something like 50 years—before electronic media take precedence over paper support in some fields of inquiry.”  While these two perspectives are not incompatible—fields can continue to rely on print books long after digital publication begins to dominate—I wonder what the Stanford group’s assertion is based on.  As a book-lover and book historian, I certainly acknowledge the importance of the book as a physical object.  As books begin moving online, it’s important for libraries to preserve multiple copies of the physical works (and heck, maybe the digital too), perhaps through a network of regional collaborations.  But I’m skeptical that in 2058 researchers will rely on print for non-archival research.  Sure, scholarly culture is slow to change, and it may take as long as a generation—but most people adapted quickly to ejournals, word processing applications, and cellphones.  Why not ebooks—provided that appropriate works are available, the interface is user-friendly and enables both immersion and interaction, the cost of purchase or subscription is reasonable, IP issues are worked out, etc?  While a research library in 2009 could not depend primarily on electronic publications for its collections (except perhaps for special libraries in fields such as law and medicine),  I’m willing to bet that by 2058 it could.

Works Cited

C-LIB Subcommittee on Digital Information Technologies in the Research Library Environment at Stanford. 2008. Report of the C-LIB Subcommittee on Digital Information Technologies
in the Research Library Environment at Stanford. Stanford University, September 8.

Higher Education Consultancy Group. 2006. A Feasibility Study on the Acquisition of e-Books by HE Libraries and the Role of JISC . .

Johnson, Rick, and Judy Luther. 2007. The E-only Tipping Point for Journals: What’s Ahead in the Print-to-Electronic Transition Zone. ARL.

Lonsdale, Ray, and Chris Armstrong. 2008. Aggre-culture: what do e-book aggregators offer? Library and Information Update, April.

Nelson, Mark. 2008. E-Books in Higher Education: Nearing the End of the Era of Hype? EDUCAUSE Review 43, no. 2 (April).

The British Library. British Library predicts ‘switch to digital by 2020’.