Posted by: mhdiaz | June 24, 2011

E-book Collection Development for Academic Libraries – Existing Options and Emerging Needs

The following post is the third in a series from Leslie Lees, VP of Content Development from ebraryAcademic 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.


  1. What a complicated and rich question. You state, “such a form of gatekeeping is increasingly rejected by the new generation of users.” I can’t help but draw parallels with that and what I have heard described as the “information bubble” or “filter bubble”. (

    It’s an interesting paradox that we find ourselves in when information seekers close themselves off to perspectives due to the way they conduct themselves in the digital environment. I believe part of a librarian’s role is to ensure that all perspectives are given equal treatment. I say to people all the time, information isn’t bad or good, it just is different. How much do we contribute to and counteract the “information bubble” for our user with collection development and acquisitions? The door obviously swings both ways. Great thoughts, thanks for the post.

  2. Leslie,
    I’m glad you have found a means of sharing your thoughts and questions with a wider public. I have enjoyed your very thoughtful posts and would like to add to the conversation. The focus of your posts is content discovery in academic libraries via significant improvements in the creation and organization of metadata. You point to librarians as critical stakeholders in designing a new discovery service. Traditional skills can be adapted and spliced onto the rich array of new data and tools now widely used, particularly in the private sector to great effect. Short of moving in this direction (hardly comprehensible), we can expect competition to library services to continue to grow: “As an industry, we must recognize that our competition for patron mindshare is not coming from traditional competitors, but instead from those outside the academic space altogether.”

    Your arguments take us well beyond the tiresome (to me) views that ebooks should not follow the print book paradigm, but be treated like electronic journals, and even beyond the large – and dated – publisher-package solution. Leveraging partnerships between software vendors and content providers […] to adapt their platforms and offerings to help ensure that librarians can meet the vastly enhanced expectations” is the way forward – and is how it has been in the past. One of the most important challenges to achieving this is the high level of competition in digital development, while in a difficult economic environment. We’re all being driven to a mindset of ‘going it alone’ and ‘doing more with less.’ And fear and suspicion are common enemies.

    At one point you state that circulation statistics show how ineffective library selection is – or has become. I’m not sure that this is entirely so. Based on ebook usage data, we seem to be seeing wide usage of library-selected materials. Discovery and ease of access seem to be critical factors. That said, I am not arguing against patron- or demand-driven access, but just saying that there is still validity in library selection, especially via schemata designed to ensure access (not necessarily purchase) to important works. One of the old tools that, with significant enhancement, should be brought to a larger solution is approval plan profiling. It was developed after all by librarians. Vendors did the development work, but librarians determined – and continue to determine – what the criteria are and how they need to be weighted and employed. In fact, I’ve often thought that a similar system would significantly improved the ability to retrieve useful data on retail sites and not only for print materials (e.g. Netflix). Unfortunately, the approval profiling schemata are unfamiliar to just about everyone in the library supply world and to many in libraries who have been dedicated to journals. If these could be updated to be driven to a much higher degree than they currently are by technology (e.g. full-text word/phrase/’chunk’ semantic scanning) and multiple thesauri and schemata, and linked to newer tools (usage data, social networking), we’d be well on our way to offering users a better service. While the technology exists today, the partnerships are going to be more difficult to knit together. In a recent book by Andrew Pettegree, The Book in the Renaisssance, we read:
    The invention of printing was not the work of scholars. […] It required hard, practical men, often men of little education, to see the potential of a new method of copying that would bring many hundreds of texts simultaneously to the marketplace. […]
    With the technique in its infancy, work [on the Gutenberg Bible] progressed slowly. The work required constant injection of new funds. The logistical requirements were beyond anything previously experienced in a book world accustomed to manuscript books emerging from the copyist one at a time. […] Gutenberg could not make it pay. He died bankrupt and disappointed, defeated by the complexities of a market not yet adjusted to absorb many hundred copies of identical books. Making the new invention a commercial proposition was the crucial and most critical challenge facing the new book entrepreneurs. It would defeat many who plunged into the new art before the end of the fifteenth century. […]
    While the efficient organisation of marketing and distribution was critical to profitability, this was inevitably a business that favored larger firms with deep pockets and steady access to credit. […] The business of books was a credit and debt economy. […]
    And these issues posed real challenges, even for the most flourishing business. Success involved the careful establishment of an intricate network of relationships, often nurtured over many years through personal association, correspondence and the recommendation of friends.

    We’re in a risk-averse time and the spirit of partnership is still overshadowed by other factors. I’m looking forward to your next post –


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