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Against the Grain V34#1, February, 2022

eBooks in Academic Libraries: Today’s Challenges and Tomorrow’s Opportunities

By Kara Kroes Li (Director of Product Management, Ebooks, EBSCO) <KKroes@ebsco.com>

The pandemic thrust a spotlight on eBooks in libraries, and

in doing so highlighted their wondrous conveniences and maddening limitations in almost equal measure. Many of the challenges experienced by libraries — in acquisition, collection management, and the user experience — have seen great progress over the last few years. However, despite the dramatic growth of eBooks in academic libraries, the institutional eBook ecosystem is still constrained by availability and pricing, frustrated by user experience limitations, and burdened by collection management challenges. As an aggregator with a vantage point between libraries and publishers, I share thoughts on where we’re headed, which challenges are likely to be solved, and which might hang around over the long term.

Availability and Pricing

Earlier this year, EBSCO surveyed approximately 400 academic libraries to learn what pandemic-induced changes they felt would be permanent. Libraries reported that one of the most universal permanent changes was shifting titles purchased for course reserves to eBook format. Curriculum support, or “curriculum-driven acquisition,” had been a growing trend in response to textbook affordability issues, but its expanded use drove an even greater need for titles in eBook format and expanded access models such as unlimited user and DRM-free. Unfortunately, many publishers withhold their highest-demand content (content with the greatest potential for sales to individuals, like course adoptions) from libraries, so libraries have been unable to transition all of their course reserves to digital. In some cases, if there is a library option available, the cost is prohibitive.

To combat this issue, EBSCO has focused on encouraging publishers to make their full catalog available for institutional purchase (in some cases helping them select backlist titles for digitization) and, where possible, to offer unlimited user DRMfree versions. According to GOBI’s data, 74% of titles profiled (relevant to academic libraries) are available as an eBook for libraries, which is up from 50% in 2016. Since EBSCO introduced the aggregator DRM-free eBook model in 2018, with 70,000 titles, the offering has grown to 325,000, including more than 55,000 frontlist titles. We have also seen some gross excesses in eBook pricing, as evidenced by the #ebooksos hashtag. We have worked to educate publishers on the real risks and benefits to library sales, and we encourage them to make, at a minimum, a perpetual single user license available to libraries. Over the last two years, we’ve seen the average unlimited user price drop 13% from a peak in 2019, and the average single user price drop 10% from a peak the same year. Even though we’ve seen a lot of experimentation with pricing by publishers, I believe we will reach an equilibrium for most content — for single-user access at least — that is more acceptable to libraries.

The struggle for library availability is coming to a head with new laws passed (and challenged) in Maryland (Albanese), New York, and Rhode Island, as well as with a recent U.S. Senate investigation (Wille) into pricing and licensing terms for libraries. The new laws, which require publishers to sell eBooks to libraries “on reasonable terms” if they make an eBook available to consumers,

are being challenged by publishers concerned about the government regulating their ability to profit from copyrighted works. A similar law is being contemplated in Massachusetts (Bray), so this is a growing trend. While this has more to do with public library sales and expiring acquisition models, the tide seems to be turning in favor of libraries seeking eBook terms that align more closely with those of print. While there is likely to be some thrashing as we update our legal system in terms of copyright laws and first sale doctrine for eBooks, I anticipate positive developments for academic-library availability as a result. This means that libraries should be able to procure digital reserves for most content, but probably still won’t be able to purchase inexpensive unlimited-user versions of all requests to relieve students from purchasing their course materials.

Even today, publishers are increasingly willing to offer content and models to libraries provided that certain protections are in place either in the form of limited-access models or digital rights management (DRM). At the risk of stating the obvious, any model that directly or dramatically undermines the number of units a publisher can sell will be looked at with scrutiny. If DRM-free unlimited user is not an option (which will always be off the table for certain content),we encourage publishers to at least offer single-user access. There is very little risk to publishers offering single-user licenses to libraries, because this model approximates the inherent limitations of print. Penguin Random House is a great example of this compromise — they agreed to sell their full catalog to academic libraries via EBSCO, but we impose limitations to ensure that checked-out titles expire and become inaccessible, rather than infinitely sharable without DRM. We’ve replicated this success procuring a perpetual-license option with a number of other publishers, including Harper Collins, Simon &

“Students are accessing almost double the number of unique titles as they did pre-pandemic ... This likely corresponds to eBooks being used more universally as course materials.”

Schuster, Hachette Book Group, and numerous independent trade publishers through the Independent Publishers Group. In fact, we now offer more than 180,000 trade titles, which have become a growing percentage of our sales to academic libraries.

Maximizing availability for libraries unfortunately requires some tradeoffs in the user experience. Fortunately, as a large aggregator, we can offer a variety of levers for content protection in order to maximize the number of titles available for library purchase. We can control downloading (e.g., none, partial, full, as well as the duration), copy and paste, and of course, simultaneous users. I do foresee us continuing to close the gap in terms of eBook availability, perhaps getting close to 100% of titles in print. Some titles, such as large art books, might be challenging, but most titles should be available with little risk to publishers. But in order to do this, I expect to see variability in content delivery (user experience) over the long term.

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User Experience

We often hear from libraries about users’ challenges when different platforms offer different functionality, or when different titles on the same platform offer different functionality. But users actually tell us that as long as it’s clear to them what they can and can’t do with the content, they are pretty resilient. 1 While last year, many users had no choice but to access content online, this year most of them do, and they still often choose “e” over print. Overall usage on our platform increased more than 40% when schools went remote, but we’ve stayed at nearly that level of usage even with the renewed availability of print options. Students are accessing almost double the number of unique titles as they did pre-pandemic (we saw a greater than 40% increase two years in a row), suggesting that they are leveraging eBooks for a broader range of research and reading than they have in the past. Also remarkable is the increase in “interactions” with eBooks. From 2019 to 2020, we saw a 34% increase in section interactions (chapter downloads, print/save/ email) and a 26% increase in full eBook downloads. But when we look at 2021 compared to 2020, we saw an additional 66% increase in section interactions, an additional 52% increase in full eBook downloads (buoyed in part by our mobile app), and a 112% increase in the number of times users copy and paste text. This likely corresponds to eBooks being used more universally as course materials, so students are using eBook content more deliberately as opposed to as quick reference. We also saw users spending a minute more in each eBook on average online.

Although we expect DRM and user limitations to persist in some form, we have made good progress in the user experience. We’ve seen publishers modernize their workflows to ensure they can produce eBooks in EPUB format, which meets accessibility standards for print-disabled students. Not only does EPUB offer the best option for screen readers; it also allows all users to jump to and from endnotes in the text, to link between chapters and figures, and to customize the text size and have it reflow. We’ve actually seen the percentage of WCAG-compliant titles double over the past two years. (EBSCO assesses all incoming EPUB content for best practices and accessibility standards using a custom tool.) That said, many small publishers report to us that they simply don’t have the resources to produce accessible EPUBs. Therefore, I expect accessibility and usability to continue to improve for publishers with sufficient financial resources, but for a subset of publishers, the most accessible option that they could provide will be a DRM-free title, at least in the medium term, which will enable basic screen reader compatibility but will not provide true accessibility. 2

Another challenge for eBook users is the persistence of Adobe DRM — both the additional software and the additional log-in requirement. Some libraries have urged EBSCO to abandon Adobe DRM, but when presented with alternatives, most of our libraries preferred the universality of Adobe to a custom solution, despite its limitations. We decided to take their advice and build unique code beyond the Adobe software development kit (i.e., a collection of tools, code, and a documentation library) to transfer the burden of DRM from the end user to our systems.

So far, we’ve eliminated the need for an Adobe ID within our mobile app, and we are working on other improvements to make downloading full DRM-protected eBooks more like the public library experience in terms of usability (e.g., using a single library log in), mixed with the more academic features our mobile app already offers, such as browsing eBooks alongside journals, supporting DDA and other usage-based acquisition models, taking notes within a title, and synching research with a desktop experience. (It’s worth noting here that we’ve also made the app much more accessible to print-disabled users than the existing Adobe code facilitates.)

To optimize the user experience, we encourage publishers to relax restrictions wherever possible. But, because of the variety of content we make available (everything from niche academic subjects to broadly popular trade books), and the need to implement different levels of protection, I do not foresee the user experience converging into a single mode of access, or, as some have proposed, a vendor-neutral platform. A single mode of access would dramatically limit the universe of available content, for reasons I outline above, and a vendor-neutral platform would undermine usability, because it would take away the ability for technology companies to differentiate and innovate (which is, frankly, what gets us out of bed in the morning). Instead, I anticipate the large number of eBook platforms available today to shrink, as publishers realize the enormous overhead of platform management and all the associated headaches with security, authentication, reporting, order management, etc. Today we have a plethora of eBook platforms, and our libraries tell us they value this choice and are purchasing from more providers (even though it leads to more variety in the user experience), but I do expect that in the future we’ll see fewer, and the user experience will be more streamlined as a result.

Collection Management

With decreasing staff, and increasing requests for and usage of eBooks, many of our libraries struggle with the burdens of collection management. The most common workflows our libraries have asked us to improve are purchasing content for course reserves, managing titles going on and off reserve, and upgrading content to meet surges in demand. Libraries also report that they are responding to more turnaway alerts than ever before as users take more advantage of eBooks in the library. EBSCO is releasing a new module called eBook Manager to streamline these particular workflows. Libraries will be able to quickly reference a requested or turned away title, see how that title is owned and how it has been used, and complete an upgrade to support the course use case. We also introduced a new daily turnaway summary report so that libraries can see which titles received usage in excess of their availability, and when and why users were turned away. Of course, libraries that want to minimize turnaways can turn on “Automatic Upgrades,” which provides immediate access to a title by triggering a purchase of the next-highest access model, with the library only charged the difference in price. More and more libraries are leveraging this feature to provide a better user experience when the demand for a title increases unexpectedly. To manage digital reserves, which we believe is a permanent fixture in academic libraries, librarians will be able to create and manage custom lists of eBooks (think “Spring 2022 Reserve List”) — activating strict controls during certain semesters and then opening them back up for normal use during other periods.

Against the Grain / February 2022<https://www.charleston-hub.com/media/atg/>



As technology marches on, we look forward to further advances in the usability and accessibility of eBooks, as well as continuous improvement in collection management as companies like ours work to keep up with library workflow needs. I see publishers, “encouraged” by evolving legal frameworks, continuing to improve the content they make available to libraries and offer more reasonable pricing. Impending laws governing the accessibility of content will eventually have a positive effect as well. We are now experiencing yet another pandemic surge, which could mean even more remote schooling and an extended reliance on eBooks before we reach a more permanent equilibrium. Whatever the future holds for academic libraries, we will continue to hustle to keep up with their changing needs.


Albanese, Andrew. “Maryland Library E-Book Bill Becomes Law.” Publishers Weekly, June 1, 2021. https://www. publishersweekly.com/pw/by-topic/industry-news/libraries/ article/86528-maryland-library-e-book-bill-becomes-law.html

Bray, Hiawatha. “Libraries Demand a New Deal on E-books.” Boston Globe, December 31, 2021. https://edition.pagesuite.com/ popovers/dynamic_article_popover.aspx?artguid=7ce21134- db4a-4491-bfd5-1d0a58d93d81&appid=1165

Wille, Matt. “Ebook lending libraries’ sketchy contracts face scrutiny from lawmakers.” Input, November 19, 2021. https:// www.inputmag.com/culture/ebook-lending-libraries-sketchycontracts-face-scrutiny-from-lawmakers


1. There is one notable exception — users and libraries almost universally tell us they want the option to download the entire book, and not be limited to chapter-by-chapter downloading.

2. For curious libraries, EBSCO provides data on accessible publishers via GOBI or EBSCOhost Collection Manager.

Save the Date: May 11-12, 2022 C H A R L E S T O N I N B E T W E E N A mini virtual "in between" conference

An update on the Clarivate/ProQuest acquisition from last year’s Charleston In Between, Exploration of consolidation and competition within the industry at large, and Efforts by ResearchGate and Elsevier to host the content of other publishers.

Visit https://bit.ly/chs-in-btwn for details!

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