Monday, March 16, 2009

on e books

Our library is dipping its toes into e-books. It's a complex world. A small academic library has a few options for providing e books:
  1. Public domain e books from Project Gutenberg, Google Books, etc.
  2. Licensed packages of ebooks paid with a yearly fee
  3. E book aggregators that sell books by the title, the big ones being EBrary and EBL
This is a good discussion of academic library options regarding e book purchasing.

I'm most comfortable with the licensing option because it doesn't seem like as long term of a commitment as paying full price or more to purchase permanent rights to individual titles on a potentially questionable platform. We recently licensed the ACLS Humanities e book collection and are trialing the Safari digital library and the EBrary platform.

Safari is a good example of providing e book content in a way that makes sense for the web. It is surprisingly pleasant to use. All book content is browse-able as HTML web pages and there are links between relevant sections of materials. Books may be downloaded via PDF and used on mobile devices. New titles in the library are available via RSS feed. It seems like the content used was designed from the ground up to be navigated digitally.

Ebrary presents itself as a clunky web interface plus a reader plug-in that lets you do various things to the book like cut and paste, notes, etc. Seems like sort of a "walled garden" approach. This doesn't strike me as very practical or realistic. It's unlikely that patrons are going to adopt research habits that take advantage of a subset of features only available on some electronic content. Ebrary books feel like old fashioned books shoe-horned into an electronic interface. EBrary has titles from many academic publishers that are availalbe to purchase at full price from library book vendors like Yankee and Blackwell.

The ACLS collection also has a somewhat clunky interface, but at least they are not pushing you to download a reader. It looks somewhat JSTOR inspired. Weirdly, you can download books in PDF format, but only in 5 page chunks. You can also see the plain text, but in a hard to read format.

The Google Books interface has a nice way of flipping between the scanned image and the plain text and is also generally pleasant to use considering it's working with mostly analog-derived content.

Unsurprisingly, the library sector vendors are behind the curve in user interface design. I don't think our patrons will have much sympathy for this.

I hope that we can eventually buy all our e books so that they may be used in a best-of-breed interface. I'm also hoping that we can leverage our regional consortium's buying power with e book packages and individual e books. Right now, purchasing an e book for our library is a bummer because it provides no broader benefit to the consortium collection. A shared e book collection is on the Orbis Cascade Alliance Strategic Agenda, I'm told.

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