The following post is the third in a series from Leslie Lees, VP of Content Development from ebrary. Academic E-books – The Shifting Landscape discusses changes that are occurring with ebooks and implications for libraries and their users. –Mike
I recently attended a UNESCO conference in Milan The Future of the Written Word that gathered together a group of fascinating and thoughtful people to discuss a set of questions about the impact of e-books on our experiences of reading and writing. I was struck there by how difficult it really is to identify practical answers to the questions that beset our complex and rapidly changing world. As the request for directions was so famously answered by Yogi Berra “you can’t get there from here!”
For all their manifest problems, library collections have provided a yardstick of quality that might act as a proxy for coaching users about information literacy. However, as we have seen, such a form of gatekeeping is increasingly rejected by the new generation of users. So how can libraries best make the shift from supporting learning and research by directing patrons to a librarian-selected collection of ‘authoritative’ books to the application of limited funds to building a better information delivery service as needs arise? Both All You Can Eat packages and Patron Driven Acquisition seem, on the surface, to offer a solution to this problem of how to meet more demand with fewer resources…but both are still only partial and problematic solutions.
All You Can Eat packages from publishers and aggregators do offer more for less, sometimes a lot more. Typically, these options can offer a critical mass ‘opening day collection’ that supports better e-book discovery…but as any hard-pressed librarian knows, the solutions that work well for a few key publishers can result in shifting the problem of resource allocation up a level from the individual book to that of the package.
The much-discussed University Press initiatives recognize the challenges for smaller presses that originate from this shift in resource allocation to bigger commercial academic presses. These smaller presses are seeking to overcome the issue of All You Can Eat pricing by banding together to replicate this same strategy. Shifting the decisions to the level of the package from that of individual titles does not, however, resolve the problem and it might ultimately even exacerbate it for the smaller presses.
From the library perspective, Patron Driven Acquisition thus would appear to be a much better solution for targeting scarce resources. While this is a very promising solution in terms of mapping collection development to user needs, it still raises many concerns and questions for librarians and publishers. In Information Theory, it is axiomatic that more signal noise equates to more transmission error and, regardless of the available selection and evaluation tools, more choice equates to more ‘noise’ and, potentially, more selection ‘error.’ Of course, librarians understand this all too well already from the noise/error equations in their annual monograph selections from a sea of new titles produced annually, despite their expertise and the tools at their disposal.
The burning question is, can we create a roadmap to a better solution that will avoid damaging dislocations. In my last post, I talked about a possible future where librarians might assist the development of tools at embed their experience in the discovery process. Improving the ability of students to discern appropriate information would surely help in the reduction of selection ‘error,’ but we need to go further.
The answer lies, surely, in the mass of new metadata that is being generated by the very use of e-book content. Publishers, aggregators and librarians have collaborated to create standards for the capture of usage data but that data is still useful mostly for individual libraries and publishers. It remains scattered and disconnected. Developing appropriate solutions will require creation of standards for the system wide capture, sharing, and study of data.
Information scientists have generated many useful and brilliant insights into researcher behavior from usage studies in both the digital and print environments…but we need to do more than study behavior. We must apply the intellectual resources of the Academy and the publishing industry to developing solutions that are based on a better understanding of actual research behavior in the digital world.
Such a collaborative effort could be built out of the current forums that exist to connect the players in the scholarly ecosystem and might then engage the expertise, not only of information scientists, but of game theorists, economists, mathematicians, cultural historians and philosophers, anthropologists, and even scientists and engineers to understand system wide implications of changes in the scholarly digital culture.
E-books have brought a sea of new challenges to the fore, but there is also an opportunity for libraries, publishers, and the academy to enhance research capabilities and experiences by using data to enrich selection choices, business models and publication strategies for the benefit of all.