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The State of eBooks in Academic Libraries: Acquisition and the User Experience

by | Mar 18, 2022 | 0 comments

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By Andrea Ferro (Global Account Development, Casalini Libri)

Against the Grain V34#1

Casalini libri — along with its recently acquired partner Companies Erasmus Boekhandel and Houtschild International Bookseller — is one of the leading suppliers of publications in print and e- format — from across Europe and beyond — to libraries and institutions worldwide. Being an e-content aggregator with a longtime expertise in Romance-language publications in the humanities and social sciences, our experience may differ from that of Anglo-American vendors. Our content is mostly “niche,” and this certainly affects — at least to a certain extent — acquisitions patterns, usage numbers, etc. That said, I think common trends can be found and our perspective, albeit partial, can be quite interesting.

We at Casalini Libri have been able to observe the progress of eBook acquisitions in academic libraries from a privileged vantage point, being, since 2000, an e-content aggregator serving libraries worldwide. From the first release of our Casalini digital library to the current iteration of our Torrossa full-text platform (access.torrossa.com), we have seen different approaches to eBook acquisitions, different user behaviors, and different publisher strategies. Ultimately, we’ve seen how things have gradually changed, with accelerations and setbacks, over the course of two decades. Libraries’ challenges and frustrations were Casalini’s challenges and frustrations, and all of our projects involving eBooks were community-driven initiatives. We have always tried to listen to the community and to interpret and address libraries’ and publishers’ different (and sometimes conflicting) needs and expectations, in a constant and productive dialogue with all the stakeholders. Not every library was created equal, and publishers and vendors should always be as creative as possible to address each and every need.

One thing that has certainly changed since we first launched the Casalini Digital library is the role eBooks play in the larger picture of library acquisitions. Back then, eBooks were just an “accessory,” a complement to existing print collections. Therefore, it wasn’t actually a matter of “choosing between the two” formats: they just coexisted and showed different usage patterns. While print was intended for current, frontlist content, digital was mainly used for bringing back to life (and to circulation) older materials, making them available again through digitization. This was especially true in our subject areas, the humanities and social sciences, where content tends to stay relevant longer.

In the early 2000s, eBook collections were basically archives of retrospectively digitized content. Publishers didn’t release a “native” e-version of their publications at the same time as the print, therefore the number of titles made available was only a matter of how technologically sound the publishers were and how many resources they were able to devote to the digitization of their books. Only a few publishers were able (or visionary enough) to invest in massive digitization projects and in workflows that allowed them to release the print and the e- at the same time. There was also a sort of hesitation about what the best strategy would be: many publishers feared that eBooks could “cannibalize” print sales, and piracy was a concern as well.

For many years libraries continued to buy eBook packages, either multi-publisher collections or subject-based ones. Pricing was favorable, with collections costing a fraction of the sum of the prices of the individual titles included therein. Customization of the content wasn’t much of a need, either. But as soon as the collections started to grow and to include even more current content, prices gradually increased, and a new trend emerged: custom or tailor-made collections, where selectors and librarians alike played an important role.

Budgetary constraints forced many universities to review their spending, and that process moved along two parallel lines: the departure from a packages-oriented model and the implementation of metrics.

While the departure from a model of acquisitions based mainly on packages was quite easy to manage for libraries, publishers and aggregators alike, the increasing importance of metrics and usage statistics in the decision-making process was difficult to deal with, especially for an aggregator like Casalini, specializing in “niche” content and in “minor” languages. Measuring the importance or relevance of a book published in Italy in 1960 about Dante’s philology against the same parameters used for an engineering or medicine title can bring unintended results.

All these factors, combined, led to a new development, the rise of new, more flexible acquisition models: custom collections, PDA, DDA, EBA and the like. We at Casalini were able to quickly adapt to these new models, mainly because of our robust in-house bibliographic department and our highly skilled approval selectors, who were key in helping libraries create tailor-made collections based on their budget and subject requirements. Also, our in-house software development department was instrumental in supporting the various new services and features of our eBook platform, especially the PDA programs.

Soon enough another issue emerged: libraries were increasingly interested in more current content, which wasn’t always available at the same time as print — in many cases a deliberate choice on the part of the publishers. Therefore, new business models started to emerge, from embargoes to tiered pricing, from stricter user permissions to limitations on the number of concurrent users. The eBooks market became harder to navigate, and in our capacity as aggregators of multiple publishers’ content, we had to be extremely careful to try to find a common denominator, in terms of licensing and usage permissions of the eBooks hosted on our platform, that allowed libraries and patrons alike to find a way through the complexities. We eventually managed to have around 90% of the publishers — and their eBooks — on Torrossa sharing the same license and usage permissions. We all know how frustrating it can be to use a platform with multiple usage permissions and licensing terms.

The licensing side of things too has become an increasingly complex and time-consuming part of any eBook negotiations, for libraries and vendors alike. Often the licensing paperwork is now taken care of outside the library, through the university’s legal office. This means that it may take several weeks, if not months, to get through all the approval steps, and in the meantime access to eBooks can’t be activated. On our end, we adopted a very simple and straightforward one-license-fits-all model, with the goal of making the approval process as easy and fast as possible.

The overall user experience of an eBook platform, too, is multi-faceted and complex. It involves technical and design decisions: users nowadays are extremely demanding and impatient, and a good UX design must help them quickly find the information they seek, with the least number of clicks possible. When a sub-par experience lets users down, it’s extremely difficult to gain their trust back and retain them. For this reason, any e-content aggregator has to invest time and resources to constantly update, refine and streamline their platform’s UX. We think the new Casalini Torrossa platform, which was completely redesigned and reengineered in 2019, is a giant leap forward in terms of usability, but it is, of course, a work in progress with evolutionary rather than revolutionary developments.

Another key factor of the overall user experience is DRM. Digital rights management hasn’t evolved at the same pace as other technologies in our industry and often has created usability issues. As an aggregator hosting more than 340 publishers and over 200,000 eBooks on our platform, we have been working to develop lighter and less-intrusive DRM protections, and we are currently working on new, more flexible and “transparent” content protection, due to be released shortly.

Tightly interconnected with the overall user experience is accessibility. Casalini has recently partnered with Fondazione LIA (a spin-off of the Italian Publishers Association) that aims to promote the creation of an accessible digital publishing ecosystem. Over the years, LIA has also activated a series of partnerships with international entities for the creation of innovative and social projects.

The goal of this new partnership is to assess, evaluate and improve the accessibility of our websites and our e-content in order to make Torrossa compliant with North American accessibility standards and the newly released European Accessibility Act. It is a project that has already been implemented on our e-commerce website torrossa.com and will be rolled out on the institutional access.torrossa.com website soon. This is another step in the direction of improving the user experience for all.

As we all know, COVID made every library user a remote user almost overnight, and platforms and publishers alike had to adapt rapidly to the new normal. Many in our industry would have expected a tenfold increase in the usage of e-resources during the lockdown, but the truth is that this just didn’t happen. Quite the opposite: it turned out that many remote users encountered so many technical difficulties and hurdles to accessing their university’s network that they just stopped trying, and only the platforms with a robust federated authentication system thrived during this period.

Last but not least is discoverability. MARC records for all titles included in the Torrossa collections are automatically sent to the library, which can upload them into their OPACs, and to a variety of discovery services. Making our content highly discoverable worldwide is truly crucial: the harder the information is to find, the less relevant it becomes, and for “minor” languages such as Italian and Portuguese, that’s a risk we can’t afford. In many cases, though, discovery services’ knowledge bases are not as accurate or up to date as would be desirable: there’s room for improvement in this area, too.

After this excursus through eBooks’ recent history from a vendor’s standpoint, how can we improve the adoption and overall user experience of eBooks? This is a million-dollar question, but we can try to answer it by saying that flexibility and customization are key. As I said, not every library was created equal, and the ability to create tailor-made solutions to meet any and every library’s needs is crucial.

Similar to what has happened in other industries, where we witnessed a paradigm shift from mass production to mass customization, our industry should adopt technologies and solutions that make the eBooks acquisition experience as seamless as possible. One example of this could be the e-learning and e-textbooks ecosystem: during COVID — especially in Italy — we have seen a growing demand for e-textbooks — a completely new experience for us. We had to rethink our workflows and create new business models. In 2020 we signed, with many Italian university libraries, several ad hoc e-learning deals and implemented a whole new set of tailor-made usage policies for e-textbooks, thus adding even more flexibility to our platform and pricing model, which is now increasingly based on the actual usage permissions needed by the library (temporary access, short-term lease, etc.). These deals required lengthy renegotiations, with the publishers adapting the existing contracts to meet the needs of e-learning eBooks.

The future (hopefully COVID-free soon) looks brighter. We are sure that eBooks will continue to play a crucial role in academic libraries, and that patrons’ experience will be positively affected by all the innovations — both technological and contractual — that are currently being experimented with and developed in our industry.

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