Challenges for academic colleagues and libraries

You submit a request to the library to buy an e-book for your reading list. It seems straightforward enough as you’ve found one available on the publisher website so the library will be able to purchase that.

Unfortunately, it isn’t that simple, and the Covid-19 pandemic has only highlighted the barriers academic libraries face in sourcing content digitally. Whilst the availability and affordability of ebooks is generally improving, we still face huge issues sourcing certain content, notably those books categorised by the publisher as a “textbook”. Definitions of exactly what constitutes a textbook vary, but they usually form a core part of a student’s reading for a specific module or topic and are almost always in high demand.

To meet this demand libraries buy multiple copies in print and students may even buy their own copy of the text. This has created a lucrative print textbook industry and it is a desire to protect revenue that leads publishers to restrict digital access or make it so expensive that for most institutions it is simply unaffordable. Consequently, providing e-textbook access to students on an institutional licence can run into thousands of pounds for a single title for one year. An average print book costs £30 so it is easy to see why scaling up access to e-textbooks has been so challenging.

So, what are the obstacles to us getting ebooks? Well here are some of the main ones:

  • The publisher only sells the ebook to an individual. This explains why finding an ebook for sale on the publisher platform doesn’t mean it will be sold under an institutional licence (the type we need to provide access to students)
  • The publisher only sells the ebook direct to students
  • The ebook is part of a collection of ebooks and we need to subscribe to the whole package to get access, some of which we might not want or need
  • The ebook is available but it falls in the “textbook” category and so the cost runs into thousands of pounds
  • The ebook is available, but access is limited to 1 user which means If a second student tries to read it at the same time, they will be blocked

It isn’t all bad news. The pandemic has triggered a collective call to action from academic libraries, led by national consortia Jisc, to put pressure on publishers and suppliers for increased affordability and availability of etextbook content and it feels like the tide may be slowly beginning to turn in the favour of libraries. Edge Hill are in the process of signing an agreement with the etextbook aggregator BibliU to provide us with digital access to some of the most in demand print items for the 2020/21 academic year and Jisc are leading on negotiations that are trying to leverage national spend on textbooks to provide libraries with further discounts. It won’t happen overnight, but the hope is that we will gradually see prices fall to more affordable levels in the years to come.

In the meantime, there are plenty of ebooks available that we already subscribe to or that we can buy from our main suppliers under an institutional licence at reasonable cost. We are constantly adding to our collections and if you are not sure if an ebook is available, we encourage academic colleagues to talk to your Academic Engagement Specialist and consider if there are suitable alternatives.