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The Stalemate

by | May 9, 2022 | 0 comments

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By Daniel L. Huang  (Resource Acquisitions Manager, Lehigh University Libraries) 

Against the Grain V34#2

When I first stepped into the academic library acquisitions world in 2013 we all were bright-eyed at the sight of all the things that could happen with the advent of the eBook.  Would we be doing away with print books (hah!)?  Would the evidence-based acquisition model be the death knell for the subject selector (now we need someone just for the EBAs)?  Would ProQuest’s Ebook Central take over the world (no librarian commentary needed)?  All ludicrous ideas nearly a decade later!

At Lehigh University, we work on the FOLIO LSP project:  an open source technology platform that changes the library’s relationship with the enterprise of running a library and its borrowing, lending, and more.  There are more projects out there that are just as innovative that potentially change the way a library’s users can both access and develop academic book content.  Innovative eBook platforms are more than simply a way to download a book or a venue for an acquisitions librarian to purchase.

The question being asked in hushed whispers in happy hours is whether or not we are in a period of technological stagnation.  A common followup point of inquiry is whether or not we have entered another era of big deals and large dollar signs in parallel with vendor inflexibility and publisher rigidity.  What will break the technological stalemate?  If the eBook is the new format to serve patrons far and wide in hybrid learning environments, why has the format not advanced past a facsimile of the print book?  Whether we wanted it or not, we’ve stepped into an era where our clients might as well be on Mars and unable to access our print collections.  So let’s get to introducing our innovators, one by one, who are breaking the eBook stalemate.

I call attention first to John Willinsky from Stanford University and the Open Monograph Project.  What if our technological stagnation is because we think of the scholarly monograph as an object that requires a publishing house to create?  Come to think of it, why do we think of a publisher as a requirement?  What if the infrastructure to create our own publishing houses was a matter of installing a software package the same way we install any other open source technology in our technical services basements? 

Ah, we as an industry do not like what publishers do with books?  Then I call upon us to consider the possibilities of doing it better ourselves (or to at least not blame the lack of technology infrastructure).  What if there’s more to books than just the printed words?  I recall a Charleston session once where we all discussed the fact that textbooks outpaced the general Consumer Price Index in terms of cost increases. 

We included in this special issue an article from Leigh Kinch-Pedrosa and Travis Wall from Pressbooks.  Librarians speak often about Open Educational Resources as an abstract concept and one where there is a low sticker cost but a high implementation cost.  What if the infrastructure to defray some of those implementation and maintenance costs existed?  How can an OER platform assist libraries with sustaining and growing textbook creation on campuses?

And next time on Startup Ebooks: the Next Generation (please read this aloud in a circa 1989 TV announcer voice), Charles Watkinson and Jeremy Morse from the University of Michigan discuss the Fulcrum platform.  In our futuristic era where supercomputers exist in our pockets and we can command our light switches by voice command, why does academia conceive of eBooks as a pure facsimile of the printed word?  There is an argument that the technological stagnation of academic monographs ought to be broken by maximizing the benefits of the online platform and connecting the eBook to its related digital media and data sets.

In the Acquisitions world we often forget that once we have purchased all the things that we ought to help the client find all the things.  As a librarian I am well aware that our industry thinks that the discovery question is largely a solved problem.  As a client or a (former) ILL technician, I will tell you that this is far from a solved problem.  Keep in mind that to a user buying and borrowing are all forms of “getting” and multiple forms of “getting” eBooks (or other materials) are likely nonsense procedures to a generation of users where supercomputers exist in our pockets (no need for the 1989 TV announcer voice here). 

Allen Jones from the New School writes on breaking the stalemate of the wall between content and the library patron.  He calls for addressing these issues for library users via creating new data standards in order for libraries, vendors, and suppliers to communicate statuses and availability.  For readers who are vendors, you ought to consider Allen’s words carefully since all future library-developed systems will develop an organic preference for providers that integrate into these standardized workflows.  Libraries will gravitate to workflows and processes that enable enhanced user experience satisfaction and our clients expect to know how the “getting” is going.  And of course the clients themselves will gravitate to requesting the library expend the materials budget on items when they know their item-getting is empowered with accurate and helpful information.

(Just for the record the battle cry of “it’s in the OPAC!” is not the definition of user satisfaction.)

In other words, a patron should be entering one unified system for all forms of acquiring library materials, whether borrowing or purchasing.  The patron will need to know what options (read: vendors) they can choose from.  And the patron (or the library at minimum) will expect to know how that fulfillment is proceeding.  This type of open and accountable patron ecosystem will break the stalemate: the winners are the providers and libraries that serve informed and empowered clients and quickly fulfill patron requests with innovative content.  Please note that I said providers since open access eBooks are the perfect initial collaborators for such a unified system.

Breaking the stalemate is not a zero-sum game.  There is plenty of room for both open access initiatives and paid resources.  There is a need for the traditional monograph but also a wealth of possibility with the enhancement of the eBook in a way that leverages its digital nature.  The eBook big deal will continue to exist but we will find new efficiencies in alternative workflows where patron-centered acquisitions will rapidly accrue.  Breaking the stalemate means opening new avenues and partnerships and leveraging the many new technologies and processes around eBooks.

My personal word of advice:  we have barely scratched the surface of what the eBook is capable of but we are beginning to explore those new frontiers.  The eBook ought to be a significant generational leap over the print book (or I should return to the business of interlibrary loan mail bag opening and vacuuming) in creation, access, discoverability, content enrichment, and user experience.  The future is encouraging because there is so much unrealized potential.  Let us break the stalemate.  

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