Thursday, December 04, 2014

The problem of e-books

I love books—hardback, paperback, yes, even e-books. I love the ease of carrying a large number of books that the e-book option gives me. I read them on my iPad, my MacBook, and my desktop computer. I read them as iBooks, Kindle books, Nook books, PDFs, Google books, even CBD's e-reader. I still prefer physical books, and I prefer PDFs in e-books.

But I've been running into a problem lately. I depend heavily on interlibrary loan (ILL) for lots of the books I read. I don't want to purchase books that I will only read once and never refer to again. And our local library isn't likely to purchase things like Pardee's The Ugaritic Texts and the Origins of West-Semitic Literary Composition or Rowe's Acts commentary World Upside Down! After all, we only have 1500 residents and maybe 3 people would even consider reading them. Not a wise use of library funds. So I use interlibrary loan.

But lately I've been running into a problem: e-books. Specifically, academic e-books. One of the big benefits of e-books, so they say, is that they can be accessed anywhere, that the Internet is leveling the economic barriers to a good education. Well, kind of. There is no doubt that some of the offerings through places like iTunes U are great. I've listened to some of the lectures from places like Yale; good stuff.

But have you ever tried to access an electronic book (EBSCO or ebrary) from a computer that is not located on campus? Have you ever succeeded if you aren't a current student/faculty member? Probably not.

That's a problem. If it were a physical book, I could request it via ILL and have it in a couple of weeks. Not so with an electronic one. For example, I recently tried to request a copy of Bloomsbury [formerly Continuum] Companion to Historical Linguistics via ILL. There are three copies available in Minnesota—two via the U of Minnesota and one in a library consortium. Not bad for an esoteric book like that...

So I tried to request it via ILL on the Internet. No success. So I went into the library to ask them to request it (they know me quite well...). This was about a month ago. I received the book yesterday. From the University of Oklahoma! A quick look at Worldcat shows that there are only 32 libraries with the physical book! Granted, that was a quick look; I'm sure I could uncover more if I looked more carefully...but the point remains the same: how can an independent scholar get a copy? The tendency, especially in linguistics and other more "esoteric" subjects, is toward e-books.

I understand the logic. Space is expensive and limited in a library. It makes sense to use that space on books that will be accessed by more than a handful of people. But what about access for those who aren't the privileged few? What about access for those of us who are 2.5 hours from an academic library and 5 hours from a really good one?

Just an
</idle musing>


Chuck Jones said...

It's a problem we librarians are working hard to solve, so far without success.

jps said...


I know you are—and believe me, I appreciate it! But it just highlights the danger of creating yet more barriers to equal access to education for those without resources.

And that is my biggest concern.

I can survive without my esoteric linguistics books. But, as e-books become the norm, more ground-level resources will become harder to obtain for the under-resourced inner-city and rural population. And that will just increase the stratification of society.


Geoff said...

My thought is that, as much as it sucks, it's not really that bad. In older times (when society was more stratified) many people never had access to such libraries.

I certainly know how you feel (there are many books I want to read but cannot afford). But wanting libraries (whose logic you understand) to operate differently in order to facilitate something that (whether it's a right or not) is not sought by the majority of its constituents seems unfair.

I wish my library had a theology and a linguistics section. Hell, I wish it had a better computer programming or nature section too. But this is South Texas. People who work in large universities might be privileged, but they might also contribute to the success of said institution.

I think that a better suggestion is that publishers recognize (from a self-interesting perspective) that many of their academic books would sell very well when priced lower in electronic format. A book that has a copy in 30-50 libraries in the country would often appeal to literally thousands of independent scholars, pastors, or smaller university professors.

Until such a time that these publishers think in terms of a longer view of profits, I'm not sure greater accessibility is possible except via piracy (which there is a huge market for...I know a lot of college students who pirate books unavailable in libraries with the justification that 'they're in some library not being read').

jps said...


I'm not suggesting that my local library carry them. I'm just saying that e-books—at least the way they have to be handled right now—makes interlibrary loan an impossibility.
And that bodes ill for the future: the haves get more and the have-nots get less. The very thing the Internet was supposed to prevent!

As for the pricing of books. Well, that's a subject that has been hashed over many times. I just can't see Brill or Oxford University Press changing their pricing any time soon!

At Eisenbrauns, we adhered to the lower pricing equals more sales equals greater income equals better customer loyalty and good feelings. But Brill et al. are driven by profits and they are loath to take a chance on losing that.

One other possibility is the increase of Open Access books. Right now I'm reading a de Gruyter book (Initiation into the Mysteries of the Ancient World [link:]) that I would never have been able to afford—and I doubt it is readily available via ILL, either. Because of Open Access, I have a PDF that I can read.


Tim Bulkeley said...

Another option would be for publishers of such esoteric works to offer reasonably priced rental to libraries for a 2 or 4 week period. That could involve similar costs for the library but new income for the publishers. Win/win.

jps said...


I like that idea. If the publishers were willing to rent it for 2-3 weeks for a cost similar to what it would cost the ILL system, it would indeed be a win-win. It wouldn't cost the library extra, and the publisher would gain extra income.

I wonder if an idea like that would even get a hearing at publishers like Brill or Oxford...


Tim Bulkeley said...

Probably not, unless smaller outfits started making money from it... the bigger they are the more afraid of falling.

It astonishes me how conservative publishing is, when the world of media of all sorts is in the middle of a dramatic revolution.