Wednesday, February 10, 2010

E-Books, Libraries, Academe, and the Great Debate continues...

http://www.insidehighered.com/news/2010/02/10/libraries

Another in a continuing discussion of the subject of electronic books in libraries and academe. There are a lot of similiar articles, reports, papers, etc. out there that purport to have "THE ANSWER" in determining the place of electronic books in academe in general, and libraries in particular. This one is also interesting, but especially in the way that it portrays the various forces that are tugging at libraries in the general discussion.

On one hand, college administrators (and the public) are hearing how massive electronic libraries are cheap and readily available, and so they think that we can cut back (or even stop) spending money on print materials in favor of the electronic model. On the other hand, patrons (faculty, students, et. al - the folks who really use the library) aren't so convinced. They tend to fall in a spectrum that ranges from liking electronic text completely to those who want no part of electronic books as a replacement for print under any circumstances, with many gradations in between.

Then, there are all kinds of studies, formal and otherwise, that suggest that e-books are not viewed by the great majority of users - yet - as equivalent to print. There are a lot of reasons for this, but the most common has to do with readability - not the quality of the screen, but simply that may people find reading electronic text a fine thing in short bursts but no so good over longer periods. I have often seen numbers ranging from 25-50 pages as being the limit for e-text reading comfort, and obviously YMMV. Reading devices have made some astonishing strides, and I for one plan to get an iPad when they are available, because I want to see how it performs with e-text.

At present, though, while we (in our library) are adding electronic version of reference books to our online collections (leasing access to these is a much more accurate description), I am loath to spend large amounts of money on e-books. Our first foray into ebooks has been a failure, and while I know 2-3 fans would squawk loudly, I an not entirely convinced that we should not just remove them from our catalog. We will see. But life continues to be interesting in the world of the modern library, and will continue to struggle with this decision for years to come.

And just in case there are some "it's all free and it's all on the internet" folks in the room, take a much closer look at the Google Book Settlement in the following locations:
"Above The Law" blog: http://abovethelaw.com/2009/12/the_google_books_settlement.php
Information Week: http://www.informationweek.com/news/government/showArticle.jhtml?articleID=222700134
Wikipedia: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Google_Book_Search_Settlement_Agreement
Google:  http://www.googlebooksettlement.com/

It's a lot to wade through. But don't let that stop you - the final settlement of this may place a permanent watermark on issues of fair use, ownership of information, and free access to information in the electronic environment in the future.