One of the most confusing impacts of the surge in access to e-books is whether academic library interests should be more or less bound together with public libraries. The issue has a wide range of ramifications, from acquisitions, to collections, to the responses to the shifting commercial marketplace. At conferences that I have attended with mixed audiences, each of these “together” and “apart” strands surface; I suspect both are correct, but more through overlay than union.
Both public and academic libraries have encountered declines in print book circulation, although with public systems that has not been the case across all metropolitan areas or all branches, whereas for academic libraries, it tends to be quite pronounced as the research focus becomes more central to mission. In other words, for research libraries, the digital transition is well underway or has already been effected. Thus we see research libraries, particularly at independent or quasi-independent institutions like NASA Goddard, Scripps Oceanagraphic, and JHU Medical shuttering their physical facilities and relying entirely on digital access.
That’s a path too hard to follow for public libraries, which serve a much broader set of needs with a wider array of products and services. Regardless of what happens with e-book access and circulation, physical public libraries are critical to the social well-being of their communities, and well positioned to provide services like computer access, job training, after-school support, digital media training and facilitation, and much more. Public libraries cannot migrate to the cloud.
Academic library response to the acquisition of e-books also differs markedly from what’s possible for publics. Academic libraries operate in a tight symbiosis with the output from university presses, despite sometimes contentious struggles over funding and subsidies. In addition, academic libraries have longstanding (sometimes even more contentious) relationships with external publishers in scholarly associations and large publisher aggregations such as Springer and Elsevier.
These ties make possible a variety of models to solve the problem of e-book ownership and access; university press platforms can be engendered within the community to vend licensed access to e-books to extant customers, creating models mirroring those for academic journals. It is even conceivable that universities might be able to form sufficiently sized consortia to “buy out” e-books from scholarly presses and provide them on an open access (OA) basis to their own communities. While that might sound far-out, this collectivization strategy has been successfully pursued with commercial publishers in high energy physics, creating SCOAP3. It is not a stretch to imagine efforts proceeding in a similar fashion with e-books.
In contrast, public libraries have to work with a much more heterogeneous mass of publishers, with many different areas of focus. Creating an public library collective, e.g. through the creation of a national e-book service platform coordinated by COSLA, the State Librarians, is entirely possible but would require a significantly greater degree of administration and management compared to the academic e-book market. Transaction costs would be high, given the complexity and size of the public library user base, combined with the number of publishers and aggregators that would have to be contractually addressed.
What would be intriguing if one market could serve the other. For example, many research libraries, such as Yale University’s, subscribe to Overdrive content in order to provide access to both popular as well as STM titles. If State and public library systems were able to develop a contemporary e-book platform with the cooperation of publishers through the establishment of their own collective, it might be possible to license or sell swaths of that content to academic research libraries. Conversely, it would be interesting to see if academic initiatives might be able to vend access of highly curated collections to public institutions, or provide deep access on some kind of metered, on-demand basis, sensitive to public institution budgets and requirements.
I think these kind of service overlays – which are already happening in print – might be an interesting path for both public and academic libraries to follow, if they can get their footing underneath themselves in the digital era.