Monday, March 31, 2014 News

Guest Blog: Potential of Ebooks Stifled by Restrictions

Open Education

This spring 65 directors of liberal arts college libraries—all members of the Oberlin Group—adopted a statement about ensuring that electronic information flows freely between institutions.

The impetus: growing concerns about restrictive terms in ebook contracts, and a recognition that—although libraries can loan print books without limitations—ebook contracts and rights-management protocols often prevent libraries from lending ebooks to the institutions and people who need them.

Such restrictions are particularly troubling as our libraries find themselves ever more dependent on ebooks. Terri Fishel, director of the Macalester College Library in Minnesota (a library whose staff authored a statement that inspired the Oberlin Group’s statement), cites a recent NCES Academic Libraries Survey indicating that in 2012 academic libraries added 52.7 million ebooks to their collections, thus increasing total ebook holdings in the United States to 252.6 million items. “The fact that many of these books are not available to share with other academic libraries,” says Fishel, “creates a huge barrier for our faculty and students. We seek to find ways to work with publishers to eliminate these barriers in order to continue to provide access to needed scholarship.”

The Oberlin Group statement is idealistic, and, to my mind, admirably attentive to the broad-minded, catholic, and even cosmopolitan ideals for which libraries should be known. “Colleges and universities, democracies, and civil societies thrive only when information moves readily between institutions and peoples.” No college or university, the statement continues, “can provide its institution’s faculty and students with every piece of information they may someday need. Hence libraries specialize, acquiring content central to the teaching and research at their own institutions, while relying on one another to fill gaps that occur as a matter of course.” “Such dependencies are inevitable,” the signatories contend, “codified over the decades in agreements struck by local, regional, national, and international consortia.”

“This system constitutes an equalizing and democratizing force. It reduces disparities between wealthy institutions and impoverished institutions. It provides citizens outside the academy with scholarly content beyond the scope of public library collections, and it provides faculty and students with content beyond the scope of traditional academic collections.”

The statement concludes: “We all find ourselves impoverished—always indirectly and sometimes directly—when information fails to reach those in need. Our commitment to sharing is fundamental, as is our commitment to promoting and demanding models that make such sharing possible.”

The statement is not intended as an attack on academic publishers. In fact the signatories note that they “remain particularly sympathetic to presses committed to the hard work of publishing academic books.” Rather, the statement envisions an system of scholarly communication in which publishers recognize that libraries cannot fulfill their missions without lending purchased material to others in need. Diane Graves, university librarian at Trinity University in San Antonio, puts it thus: “Academic libraries and publishers must work together to maintain a healthy information access system. As technologies change and new opportunities arise, periodically both parties should step back and look at what works—and what might change—as modes of access evolve. Ebooks are an exciting development in the world of publishing; our purpose is not to curtail this mode of access, but rather, to preserve what has been most beneficial to the academy in terms of resource sharing.”

Ebooks must become (and should logically become) a means of broadening access to information—of making information easier to share. At the moment, however, the opposite appears to be true. The Oberlin Group statement will succeed if it prompts all of us to pause, take stock, re-examine fundamental commitments, and commit again to the principles of sharing so crucial to our profession.

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