E-Books as Catalyst for Processes of Change in Academic Libraries

This is a summary of my article published in BuB – Forum Bibliothek und Information 64 (2012) S.604-608.

E-books are not merely a new medium increasingly being offered to users of academic libraries. E-books have the potential to initiate or to accelerate the processes of change within the core responsibilities of librarianship – acquisition, basic cataloging, descriptive cataloging – and even ultimately the use of media. In my article I describe how e-books can be a catalyst for greater transformations.

It is undisputable that e-books have found their place in academic libraries. But scientific support for this assertion is not (yet) possible. Statistical data as collected for library performance indexes or reports does not have a unique category for e-books. Even the definition of the term E-Book is still generally unclear. Another question arises with the definition of holdings – what does it mean for a library’s holdings if there are temporarily licensed e-books? Or if the library offers a catalogue of e-books for Patron Driven Acquisition that are only bought when a user wants to download the document? Furthermore e-books accelerate some more changes in the process of acquisition. There are new business models and new ways of selection. The role of reference librarians will change when the selection of books is no more their main task. Then also cataloguing is influenced by e-books. If a library gives only access to a document hosted on the server of a publisher, there will be no more reason to catalogue it separately in every library. Automatic cataloguing, extraction of metadata will be more important than today. And users won’t care about a reduction of quality of metadata – as long as they can find the documents easily.

Another impact of e-books is how scientific scholarly documents are read. It is a standard that e-books are published like volumes of an e-journal: each chapter is a separate PDF document (according to an article in a volume). The download of a complete book is not allowed because this would be a copy of a complete work. This makes users read only the chapter they are really interested in and they don’t read the context of the information. This leads to a fragmentation of information. Another aspect is the bad usability of this kind of documents: the files have no specific name and have no integrated metadata. So, if you download a file, you have to rename it and organize the files on your desktop in order to find the information later on. Another issue with e-books (and e-journals) is the exclusion of non-members of the faculty. This is quite a serious problem for academic libraries in Europe, because they are usually also libraries open to the public. But this user group has got no remote access to the licensed electronic documents. A solution could be to lend the e-books electronically (e-lending). This service is offered more and more by public libraries, but hardly by academic libraries. Another question is how the usage of e-books on mobile devices as e-reader or tablets can be supported by libraries. One important task is to offer e-books in a format that can be used on these devices. Another service can be training and support for the usage of tablets and e-readers.

There are signs that e-books will develop to a new kind of media type that differs clearly from a electronic version of a print monograph. Publishers already try to offer e-books on large platforms. There the e-books – or the chapters of e-books – are linked to other resources, aggregated with metadata, eventually by linked data. Users will be able to annotate selected documents, store them and maybe share them to others. But also publishing and distribution e-books could change fundamentally. New tools give the possibility to researchers and teachers to produce enhanced e-books on their own or (maybe) supported by the library. Self produced e-books and textbooks then could be published on document servers under open access Openly Accessible.

The role of academic libraries in this context is hardly to predict. There are a lot of risks and also chances. The libraries could give support to new publishing models and offer new services to researchers and teachers. But they need to collaborate with other institutions like IT services or multimedia productions.

We find ourselves at the onset of a new development and are still lacking basic data and insights. The development of e-books and their effects on libraries, booksellers and publishing will be a central area of research for library science in the coming years.

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