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Learning Belongs in the Library — Perspectives on Post-Pandemic Library Provisioning of Course Reading and Textbook Material

by | Sep 30, 2022 | 0 comments

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An Interview with Dominic Broadhurst of the University of Salford in the UK

Column Editor:  David Parker  (Director of Product Management Underline Science & Founder Lived Places Publishing; Phone: 201-673-8784)   parkerthepublisher.com

Against the Grain V34#4

The pandemic may be largely behind us in terms of its impact on universities and libraries being physically open, but there have been lasting effects on textbook and course reading fulfilment.  My specific curiosities, as concerns the lasting impact of the pandemic and the library, is the transition from print to digital, the place of the library in the acquisition and delivery of textbooks, and the rise of new providers and new business models.  This set of questions led me recently to consider how the landscape has shifted in UK libraries and what this might mean for North American libraries.  The UK library is a special case in regard to the role of the library in textbook delivery as the UK university library has largely replaced the bookstore as the central actor in collecting faculty reading list requirements and then acquiring and delivering materials to students.  What follows is an interview with Dominic Broadhurst, Head of Content and Discovery at the University of Salford.  Dominic is active on many advisory boards across the industry and is an ever-present voice in the ongoing discussion concerning textbook pricing and library access.  My questions are in bold and Dominic’s answer follows:

Is the impact of the pandemic over as concerns the libraries provisioning of textbooks to support course reading lists?

It would seem that the immediate impact of the pandemic is probably now over in terms of textbooks support in the fact that most libraries have re-opened their doors after being forced to shut, which of course does allow access to print again.  However, it has left several legacy issues and indeed opportunities which also coincides with how many libraries really want to push forward their digital first policies.  What has remained and is just, if not more, prevalent is the desire to provide equitable and workable solutions around textbooks for our students, which meet institutional goals of positively impacting upon teaching and learning.  Issues around affordability, equitable access, and sustainability remain.

How has the print versus digital distribution in textbook delivery for students shifted: pre-pandemic, pandemic, post-pandemic?

In many ways, these changes were already taking place as many libraries were looking at digital solutions for textbook provision before the pandemic.  Obviously, during the pandemic, the issue became more prevalent in a short space of time and libraries had to move rapidly to enable all our students to access textbooks they needed, when, as mentioned, the physical libraries were closed.  This had implications for affordability for libraries, often having to repurpose budgets quickly to ensure our students could use the digital textbook that they needed for their studies.  Post pandemic I think there will still be a market for print, but this will be reducing and possibly will only occur when the digital solutions are either unaffordable or simply not available to libraries.  It’s fair to say some students still prefer print, but the advantages of digital, especially with textbooks, are taking priority.

Has the place of reading list solutions like Talis and Leganto changed in any fundamental way because of the pandemic?  For example, have any new providers emerged?  Have any new features of high value emerged?

I don’t think these solutions have changed in any fundamental way because of the pandemic, except to bring their value to the fore more.  It’s a similar tale as regards digital with textbooks in that the rationale underpinning their value and functionality in terms of supporting blended learning and giving students access to resources seamlessly and quickly has just made these solutions even more relevant.  In particular as they are combined with and linked seamlessly within the Virtual Learning Environments every institution uses.  In terms of high value, what we’re looking at is increasing the range of resource we are both integrating with and are embedded within these reading lists solutions.  This, in essence, means increasing the range of resources both provided and linked beyond the traditional options such as books (“e” and print) and e-journals to include a greater range of multimedia formats and new content solutions.  We are also interrogating the analytics more to gauge value and drive engagement and intervention with certain class cohorts about increasing resource usage.

How has your budget changed, if at all, in any long-lasting way, in supporting textbook acquisition?

In terms of academic libraries, I would say several options are now on the table.  Some academic libraries managed to leverage additional resource from the parent institution, especially during the pandemic, but the issue of whether or if this can and should be sustained over a long period is still up for debate.  With some libraries, they have had to or wanted to reposition or reshape their existing budgets to cater to the e-textbook need, which again raises issues of sustainability and whether the spend is showing sufficient return on investment.  Its fair to say that opinions and experiences are mixed on this, and many libraries are revaluating this spend.  Finally, for some libraries, they cannot support significant e-textbook acquisition, especially as there is a real debate concerning issues around affordability and accessibility for textbooks for their students and the role of libraries being constrained in their mission to provide all the resources their students need.

Considering the entrenched, large providers like Pearson, McGraw Hill, and Cengage, what have you seen in terms of moving toward or away from supporting the library?  For example, new access models, or policy shifts on digital rights management.

In many ways it’s been a mixed bag from traditional providers, but it’s fair to say many publishers are seeing the library as one of their sales channels, which was not always the case, especially in markets such as the USA.  This can either take the form of delivering their titles through an aggregator, such as an established library eBook provider (though of course not all textbooks are often available via this channel), or from one of the new e-textbook focused aggregators, that have come to the market in recent years.  Some of the publishers are also looking to target and sell directly to academic libraries through their own platforms.  All this can lead to a fragmented and confusing marketplace, which is an issue for libraries and the students and faculty they serve.

Paradoxically many traditional providers are also looking at delivering a direct to student model, often on an annual subscription basis in addition to direct sales of copies to students.  Pearson and Cengage have recently done this and it clearly benefits them if they can scale up, though of course students often need access to textbooks from a range of publishers.

In many ways, providers are looking to both maximise all the opportunities and new sales channels created by digital but, in my view, they are not quite sure which is the most optimal solution, so they are spreading their bets.  As mentioned, this does lead to a fragmented and confusing marketplace and libraries are often squeezed in terms of time and resources to fully evaluate all available business model options.  Publishers want the institutional sales from universities and hope to benefit from scale, but not via a traditional library sales model.  They are also somewhat caught between the twin poles of maximising current revenues whilst achieving long term sustainable solutions from the shift to digital, thus experimenting with various models.

New providers gained significant traction during the pandemic, such as Perlego and BibliU.  What is your perspective on the impact of these new entrants?  Were they a force for productive change or disruption?  Did they improve the available options for libraries in the UK accessing textbooks for students?

It’s certainly true to say these new providers have provided both innovation and disruption to the traditional market, which has meant that traditional publishers have also had to look at their offerings and how they package their textbooks for both libraries and students.  This could be seen as a force for positive change and more choice, which means more options but the inherent problem for these new providers is that they don’t own the content and the content is still owned and provided by the publishers.  Therefore, the prices they can offer through their various access methods are still inextricably tied to the price the publisher sets, factoring in any discounts they can leverage from the publishers.  It’s certainly true to say that the publishers have bought into new models, such as the student direct consumer model, and new demand driven models for libraries which are being quite well received.  So, in summary, yes, the options have increased but many of the similar restrictions and issues around access to content and publisher pricing controls still exist.

For North American librarians, can you describe the role the library plays in textbook fulfilment in the UK?

UK Libraries are much more involved in the provision of textbooks to students as opposed to U.S. libraries, where this was traditionally undertaken by the campus bookstore.  In the past, before the digital age, this usually meant stocking numerous copies of print textbooks both in high demand collections and on the “normal” shelves.  Many libraries had purchasing ratios whereby they acquired and provided print textbooks based on student enrollment numbers, e.g., 1 textbook for every 20 students in a course.  And this was especially so for courses where textbooks are fundamental aspects of the teaching, e.g., law, accountancy, medicine etc.  Obviously, this provisioning of print still faced many challenges regarding access and our ability to provide our students with enough copies and it was therefore quite an unwieldy and inflexible solution.

Therefore, even in pre-pandemic days, many academic libraries were looking at how they could provide digital copies of textbooks to their students, often negotiating on a 1 to 1 student basis whereby they would provide targeted access to targeted courses or, if possible, sourcing from a traditional library eBook aggregator.  The librarian was at the centre of negotiations within their institutions around the provision of textbooks for the students as opposed to the U.S. model where this was normally left to the bookstore to deal directly with publishers.

Of course, the issue of affordability still exists and the ability of libraries to purchase textbooks beyond the 1 to 1 model.  But it’s fair to say there is a much greater willingness of libraries and librarians in the UK to deal with textbook provisioning as we are the resource centre the students look to for their studies.

Perlego and BibliU both announced this past spring large series A funding raises of many millions of pounds/dollars with the express intent of achieving growth in North America.  Perlego will need to compete/complement direct-to-student models from Pearson and Cengage and BibliU will need to focus on inclusive access solutions and its relationship with libraries, although the library is far less central to textbook acquisition in North America as compared to the UK.  How do you see Perlego and BibliU evolving?

I think it’s fair to say that both will probably have more traction and potential to grow in the U.S. market.  As already discussed, the direct 1 to 1 student acquisition model is much more entrenched within the U.S. education system.  BibliU is also making advances in their bespoke provision to college libraries, often replacing the campus bookstore and essentially tying in their offer with the inclusive access model, which is under great debate in the U.S.  Although this is still related to the student’s ability to pay, provisioning can be subsidised by the student’s institutions and this model is growing.  Whilst tending to be more individual student focused, as opposed to institution focused, Perlego can take advantage of the student 1-1 purchase model so prevalent in the U.S.  Their advantage over the comparable subscription models offered by individual publishers is that they can offer the students a greater range of content from a broad set of publishers, making the appeal of their subscriptions more extensive to a wider range of students.  Of course, they will be need to mindful that publishers don’t pull their content or key titles from their platform to encourage students to go direct to the publishers’ own platforms.

I would think this illustrates how there is greater potential for growth in the U.S. market.  This probably underpins why they were both so successful in acquiring recent additional funding from investors.  It’s also fair to say that they are probably looking at other markets outside of Europe, including growth markets in the Middle East where both similar models to the U.S. can exist and there are cash rich universities.

And, finally, open educational resources and open access for journals and monographs continues to evolve and grow as a share of the content for learning and research.  How is this impacting your library in supporting the course reading list?

Yes, this is certainly impacting how we support the course reading list service that we provide and indeed our wider access to resources for staff and students.  This can offer us options to both provide more cost-effective resources, but also critically support and provide a wider range of resources from both a more diverse range of individual authors and content formats.  

Critical to this process in our work here is how we, both in my institution and in other institutions, are looking at repositioning and repurposing financial resources from the information resources budgets to support open access resources and OER.  We are also moving away from just spending on acquisition to supporting creation and curation of resources. 

We have real ambitions in this area, but there is much work to do to encourage faculty creation, especially with OER.  I think there will be a much more mixed model of provisioning, with room for all format types including of course traditional textbook acquisition.  However, libraries have real ambitions to diversify in this space and we must be prepared to support it financially and ideally work collaboratively with academics, libraries, and library consortia to really achieve a step change in terms of creating and providing open resources.  

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