Wednesday, May 18, 2011

Open Access eBooks, Part 4. Libraries

No Shelf Required: E-books in LibrariesThe fourth section my book chapter on Open Access eBooks looks at theier relationship with libraries.  I previously posted the IntroductionWhat does Open Access mean for eBooks and Business Models for Creation of Open Access E-Books. I'll be posting one more section, a conclusion.

Thank you for all of your comments; the completed chapter (and OA eBook) will be better for them.

Libraries and Open Access E-Books

One of the missions of libraries is to provide access to all sorts of information, including e-books. If an e-book is already open access, what role is left for libraries play?

Here’s a thought-experiment for libraries: imagine that the library’s entire collection is digital. Should it include Shakespeare? Should it include Moby Dick? These are available as public domain works from Project Gutenberg; providing these editions in a library collection might seem to be superfluous. Many librarians have been trying to convince their patrons that “free stuff on the Internet” is often inferior to the quality information available through libraries. There are certainly e-book editions of these works available for purchase with better illustrations, better editing, annotations, etc. Should libraries try to steer patrons to these resources instead of using the free stuff?

For the most part, libraries have not done a good job of incorporating resources such as those available from Project Gutenberg into their digital collections. Overdrive, the leading provider of e-books to public libraries, now offers Project Gutenberg titles for no extra charge, but they are offered as a separate collection. At present, if a user searches for Moby Dick in a library collection, a result will be returned only if the library has a purchased edition of Moby Dick, which may be in use by another patron. A separate search must be done to retrieve the free edition.

As we saw in the section on types of open access, for an e-book to really be Open Access, there must be an appropriate license (or public domain status) AND effective access. There are a number of ways that libraries can work to make that access effective, both individually and through cooperative effort. Similarly, Open Access e-books can play an important role in supporting the mission of libraries. This section will consider libraries’ roles in access, selection, archiving, community, and production of Open Access e-books.

Access and Storage

Most libraries can avoid worrying about access and storage of Open Access e-books, thanks to services such as the Internet Archive’s OpenLibrary project and HathiTrust, a “partnership of major research institutions and libraries working to ensure that the cultural record is preserved and accessible long into the future”.  These services provide reliable low-cost file storage and bandwidth. Adding effective access to cost-free e-books at other sites may need a bit more work; figuring out and tracking stable, persistent URLs at multiple locations can create a logistics burden for libraries that could help manage access. Library-oriented “knowledgebase” services from vendors such as OCLC, Proquest and Ex-Libris may prove to be useful in this regard.

As users shift towards reader devices and tablet computers, libraries will find themselves spending a lot of time helping users figure out how to move Open Access e-books onto their devices. In principle, Open Access e-books shouldn’t require Digital Rights Management, and should thus be compatible with most devices. In practice, getting content free content onto a device can be non-intuitive and often “side-loading” or other indirect procedures are required; most e-reader devices have book shopping functionality and the vendors are not motivated to push users to content that doesn’t generate revenue.

Selection and Description

Metadata based discovery and browsing have been a strength of libraries; without the motivation to sell copies, many cost-free e-books lack even basic metadata, let alone good quality catalog records. This is clearly an area where libraries can make significant contributions, especially when they work cooperatively.

With a flood of free content already available, and much more on the way, there is a continuing need to highlight the material most suited to the needs of the user. Multiple editions can exist of public domain works; it makes sense for libraries to help patrons find the best ones.

Perhaps the best example to date of work in a library on selection and description of Open Access e-books is the Online Books Page at the University of Pennsylvania. Edited by John Mark Ockerbloom, it indexes over a million online books, all of them available for free to users (

Archiving and Preservation

One of the biggest uncertainties presented by e-book licensing is whether today’s e-book acquisitions will meet the needs of future readers. As we celebrate the 40th anniversary of the first e-books, it’s hard to ignore the fact that most libraries have print collections that reach back a hundred years and more. We don’t know what parts of today’s written culture will be in demand 100 (or even 40) years from now or how readers will expect to approach them. For that reason, texts must be in a form that can evolve with reading technology, and the evolution must not depend on the permission and continued existence of publishing companies, platform vendors, rights management software, proprietary software or hardware. Formats must adhere strictly to standards. The forty-year-old texts from Project Gutenberg can still be read today because they used very simple formats; these are being converted to newer more capable formats such as EPUB for easy consumption on e-book readers. Going forward, there will be continuing challenges in the evolution of photos, graphics, mathematics, scripting, and linking of e-books.

LOCKSS, a peer-to-peer preservation system in which libraries are taking the lead in preserving e-journals and other websites. LOCKSS has been working to extend its digital preservation efforts to e-books; about 45,000 e-books are “in-process”, and it’s expected that another 30,000 will be added in 2012.

Community and Context

Open Access e-books give libraries new ways to reach out to the communities they serve. The social aspects of reading are well known to libraries; the story times and book clubs nurtured by public libraries are excellent examples. Although an e-book isn’t tied to location the way a print book is, people and their social circles are tied to places. There are two types of advantages for the use of Open Access e-books in a library’s outreach efforts. Cost is an obvious factor; public libraries have an obligation to support reading by community segments that might not be able to afford the books they need. A second advantage is that of context building. The sort of annotation, commenting and discussion around books that can take place in a group of friends and neighbors is quite different from that which occurs anonymously in a global forum. At the same time, the availability of free, untethered e-books from libraries, free from DRM or Internet monitoring, allows individuals to obtain and read books with real privacy.


As technology lowers the barriers to e-book production, more and more people will be able to produce and distribute e-books. Just as the combination of YouTube, cheap video cameras and editing software allows Rebecca Black to become a viral sensation, the corresponding e-book technologies are already starting to nurture grassroots authorship. Libraries may play an important role in enabling and promoting community-created content. Books that may not be commercially viable may still be important to a community, and libraries can play a role in connecting local authors to communities both near and far.

Libraries can also fill the need for educating grassroots authors about the meaning and importance of public licenses. Some authors will of course need to use traditional licensing strategies, but most will be unfamiliar with Creative Commons and other types of licenses. The social benefit of the use of these licenses is aligned with the library’s mission of promoting access to information, and libraries should not be hesitant to promote their use.

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1 comment:

  1. This is really good thinking. I have written a blog post that similarly explores what will happen if libraries and bookstores continue to rely on others to host their ebook collections.

    I totally get why librarians sometimes steer patrons to the commercially available ebooks rather than the free ones. I went to the upenn link you provided above and searched for Eugene Debs (one of my favorite authors). The Hathi trust had a few of his books, all great books, but only in PDF versions, and not with an easily accessible download option.

    I understand perfectly why many FREE editions are basically just page scans. Who is going to spend the time required to reformat, correct, and then add the HTML tags to make an OCR'd document readable online. But there are huge drawbacks to merely presenting a book as a set of scanned pages.

    In the ebooks I produce (, I try to work with the material one chapter at a time (still not the best) however, I also preserve original page numbering. What I definitely want to make clear is that an ebook is an ebook and not merely a transcribing of an older edition. It is a new entity, a new edition. I get that with print-based reprints one could scan the pages of the original book and produce a reprint that was just as good as the original. Online, however, producing reprints in this old way is terribly flawed! It just does not make sense.

    The problem online is that HTML has never been a publishing markup language in the same way that say that PostScript was. What we need in future versions of HTML is a way to take complete control of the screen and printer environments so that we can specify how the material is to be rendered. One had hope with tablet reading devices that they would give that kind of control - with some sort of specialized markup language. Tablets have been trailing behind in this regards and, as far as I can tell, are more tailored to be regular old plain jane web browsers rather than browsers which have special capabilities tailored to the needs of the tablet user.

    I also liked your other blog post on object oriented books and I think this is correct that we need to really begin to design books that have all the capabilities to control and transform their environments. It also occurs to me that to make this a reality we are quickly moving to the era of compiled book code and compiled HTML. I don't read your blog regularly so maybe you have already touched on this topic, and if you have, I apologize for being redundant.