Fairer access to e-books

During the pandemic, the Library Services team at City has been extremely busy with ordering e-book versions of texts that are needed for teaching and research at City. With libraries closed for months and no physical access to print collections – meaning that inter-library loan services have been severely impacted too – it has become crucial for us to ramp up our already extensive e-book collections.

Libraries may be slowly reopening now, with click and collect services becoming standard, but it is still important for libraries to continue ordering e-books because not every library user will be able to return to campus (or feel comfortable in returning to campus) to collect print books.

It is frustrating that we cannot always get hold of the e-books that we need for our researchers, staff and students. We find ourselves stymied by:

  • Publishers who will only make e-books available if you subscribe to an entire – and very costly – database (of which the e-book will only be one small part!)
  • Publishers who charge an inflated price for e-books (when the cost of the print version is much more moderate).
  • Publishers who don’t offer e-book versions of books, or only produce them months after the print book has come out.
  • Publishers who don’t offer DRM free versions, and instead put strict limits on what use readers can make of e-books. (DRM technology allows publishers to control and manage the usage of their e-books, e.g. restrict the number of concurrent users and limit the number of pages a user can copy, print or download. DRM also has implications for the accessibility of texts.)

This frustration is echoed by academic librarians around the country, and the librarians at York St John University made a powerful statement in a blog post entitled Lobbying for fairer ebook access.

So here is our plea!

As academics, when you are considering what to put on your reading lists, please work with us to see what is available electronically. Some students may have to study at home for months at a time, and will not be able to come into the University to access the print collections. If you cannot find a book in e-format (or don’t know if it can be obtained electronically), please contact your Subject Librarian for advice.

As researchers, when you are considering where to publish, please bear in mind that different publishers offer very different publishing models. Find out what their policy is, so that you can see whether your work will be readily and quickly available to libraries in e-book format. Also speak to them about their policy on copyright – if you have any questions about copyright and publishing, you can speak to our Copyright Librarian.

And consider Open Access. OA monographs are becoming much more mainstream, and – depending on the outcome of the UKRI Open Access Review – we might find that there is much more of a drive towards OA monographs (with suggested policy changes perhaps coming into effect as early as 2024).

If you would like advice on which publishers have library-friendly e-book policies, please contact our Research Librarians. We have good knowledge of how the publication lifecycle works and also of the different types of e-book licences offered by publishers.

It feels like we might be at a pivotal moment, with a new – mainly online – university term about to start, and with publishers starting to withdraw some of the electronic resources they temporarily gave us access to during the pandemic. So please do join in the dialogue and let us know what you think.

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