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Learning Belongs in the Library — Digital Textbook Acquisition and Library Workflow

by | Nov 30, 2021 | 0 comments


Three Regions and Three Very Different Scenarios:  North America, United Kingdom/Ireland and Australia/New Zealand

Against the Grain Vol. 33#5

Column Editor:  David Parker (Publisher and Consultant; Phone: 201-673-8784) 

Between the summer of 2020 and the summer of 2021, I conducted more than 50 interviews with librarians responsible for acquiring textbooks (print and digital).  I conducted many of these interviews as a member of the ProQuest Ebook Central team, and also as an independent consultant and writer after leaving ProQuest in January, 2021.  The interview participants were equally spread across North America, the UK and Ireland, and Australia and New Zealand.  The goal of my research was to understand the workflow challenges the librarians faced in each of these regions and the role of the library within the larger university strategy of textbook fulfillment.  While affordability and open access were critical topics in the interviews, I will leave these topics aside for a follow-up article.

The pandemic engendered a near-total, instantaneous shift to digital learning and that became the catalyst for the deep reflection amongst the librarians I interviewed.  And while so much changed so rapidly, it occurred within fairly rigidly defined regional and institutional practices concerning the role and place of the library in textbook provisioning.  In other words, the status quo of “who pays” and how acquisition is conducted shifted rather little in response to the pandemic.  I came to understand that any profound shift must commence from either senior administration policy change, or an exogenous economic or regulatory shock.  Students, faculty, instructional designers, and librarians all have a voice, but it is the senior university leadership and the regional policy and regulatory framework that drives the publishers’ business models for access and pricing.

Librarians have well-worn workflow solutions and practices in place for acquiring books (print and digital).  When textbook (print and digital) acquisition is mission critical, those well-worn workflow solutions break down to a great degree, but not entirely, and the pandemic fueled significant growth in the availability of digital textbooks in extant workflow solutions with “library friendly” purchase models.  The connection between reading list software and acquisition workflow solutions eases the process in certain regions and less so in others.  The degree to which workflow and reading list solutions are a significant source of aid or concern in each of the three regions is driven by historic practices.  Again, the sudden shift to nearly complete digital only curriculum, created headwinds and opportunities, but it did not fundamentally change longstanding practices.

Australia and New Zealand

I begin with Australia and New Zealand because, in my view, it is in between the practices of North America where the campus bookstore is central to textbook delivery and the university library focuses on reserve copies only and the United Kingdom and Ireland where the bookstore does not exist in a meaningful way and the campus library is viewed as the critical center of textbook delivery for students.  Among the librarians I interviewed in Australia and New Zealand, there was a nod to the bookstore as a resource for print textbooks, but when asked where the university administration was focused it was the library.  But this observation was juxtaposed against a clear view that the university expected each student to acquire their textbooks directly;  in other words, there was seemingly little administrative strategic coherence as to the “center” of textbook delivery on campus.

Unlike North America and the United Kingdom and Ireland, most of the major textbook publishers deliver their textbook catalogs in library workflow solutions, most notably through ProQuest (though this is in flux and very recently publishers are pulling back on front list availability in library workflow).  The publishers understood these digital textbook sales to be in support of course reserves.  As the pandemic took hold, and all courses moved online, digital textbook access through the libraries increased in equal measure to students not purchasing print textbooks.  This fueled publisher business model changes, including digital list price, changes to number-of-user models (typical is 1 user, 3 user or unlimited user), digital rights management changes in the direction of more restriction and, in some cases, new title release embargoes. 

I characterize the current library textbook market in Australia and New Zealand as chaotic.  The librarians I spoke with see their role as very much about providing broader access to textbooks, whereas the administration of the universities is focused on student responsibility for purchase and access.  The publishers have historically provided broad library 1 user and 3 user access and allowed for “stacked purchases” of 3 user purchases, which implies usage beyond course reserve and knowing publisher acceptance thereof.  Reading list tools (Talis, E-Reserve Plus, and Leganto) are in use, but adoption by faculty is fragmented.  The workflow solutions (Gobi, Ebook Central, Rialto) are broadly used to acquire textbooks because textbooks are broadly available.  The primary challenges facing the librarians are publisher pricing, DRM and access changes and thus uncertainty about what will be available.  This is compounded by uncertainty from university administration about the central versus supporting role of the library in providing wide access to digital textbooks.

North America

In North America the campus bookstore in the unequivocal center on campus for both print and digital textbook delivery.  Institutional access, in the context of the bookstore, is delivered through inclusive access (IA).  IA is a program whereby the student fee for the textbook is included in the tuition and student fees and the textbook is delivered on day one of class through the learning management system or direct e-textbook access.  Each IA adoption requires price setting (based on enrollment) and entails communication, back and forth, between the publisher and/or the aggregation platform (Vital Source for example) and the bookstore. 

The university library is not typically involved in textbook delivery and traditionally only provided access to print reserve copies (often sample textbooks acquired by faculty and donated to the library).  The pandemic led to an immediate need for digital textbook reserve copies in the library (1 user or 3 user) and this transition from print reserve to digital reserve is unlikely to reverse.  I expect increasing coordination between the college bookstore and the library on the university-wide textbook adoption information so that the library can more easily identify the titles to acquire for course reserve.  There is little evidence that the North American university administration will move the responsibility for textbook acquisition from the student to the institution and, thus, potentially to the library.  The primary questions for the future will be in regard to publisher decisions about the extent of access to reserve textbooks via library workflow and then how students react to this digital access.  It is conceivable that the publisher’s experience in the Australia and New Zealand market will influence how they react to requests for broadening title access via the library.

Reading list tools are not broadly adopted in the North American market and where they are the use case is not in regard to textbooks from the largest publishers.  Reading list tools are leveraged primarily by librarians, in support of faculty, who are relying on library-licensed content (articles, cases, monographs, etc.) for syllabus creation.  Workflow solutions are not a hindrance to the work of the library in acquiring textbooks because this is clearly not the role of the library; however, should digital textbook reserve holdings grow, if accompanied by publisher business model volatility, workflow challenges will surface.

United Kingdom and Ireland

I finish with UKI because this is the region where the library is the central campus location for textbook delivery to students because there is no meaningful campus bookstore presence and because the university administration is focused on the library as the solution for student textbook access.  Before the pandemic shut down in person classes, eBook aggregation platforms focused on textbooks, such as Kortext and BibliU were important partners to the library and the leading textbook publishers looked to these companies to supply UKI libraries.  The increase in demand for digital caused by the pandemic drove large increases in purchases from these aggregation platforms and occasioned the introduction of new business models that resonated with UKI librarians.  Adaptations of evidence-based access and demand-driven access, for example, gained traction, but were not developed nor delivered to perform in known library workflow solutions like Oasis, Gobi and Rialto. 

Faculty in the United Kingdom and Ireland are encouraged to use reading list tools to establish the required (core) and recommended textbooks for each course.  This information provides the larger data set, if you will, for library acquisition and sets in motion purchasing via workflow those titles available within workflow and purchasing via other solutions for textbooks not available in the library workflow solution of choice.  There is strategic coherence from the top of the university that drives textbook purchasing through the library, informed by faculty using reading list tools.  As in the North American region, there is clarity about the role of the library.  And as in Australia and New Zealand there is an understanding by the textbook publishers about the role of the library in fulfilling required and recommended textbooks for the curriculum.  But unlike the North American and Australian/New Zealand market, there is a tremendous workflow bottleneck because the textbook aggregation platforms that are critical to accessing required/core content do not perform in an unmediated workflow solution like conventional scholarly monographs. 


The transition from print to digital has been irreversibly accelerated by the pandemic.  And the growth of online and hybrid courses will also accelerate irreversibly.  The degree to which this is experienced as a bottleneck by the university and by the library will be a function of how each major region discussed here views the place of the library in textbook fulfillment for course required versus course reserve and also for textbooks as recommended only.  For North America the major open question will be to what extent and how rapidly libraries move to provide digital reserve copies.  For Australia and New Zealand, the primary issue to monitor will be how the publishers and libraries define what is a reserve policy versus broader access beyond simple reserve content.  And for the United Kingdom and Ireland, the critical pain point to watch is the degree to which the major textbook providers can provision purchasing through unmediated library workflow tools. 

As noted in the beginning of this article, affordability and open access, such as open educational resources (OER), is a chief concern among libraries.  This is a topic infused with regional nuance, but the regional variation will still be subject to strategic direction delivered by senior university leadership.  More on this topic in a future column.  


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