Austin or bust

Austin, Texas by prind1m, via Flickr

I’m headed to Austin, TX next month to co-present a session with my friend and colleague, Jacqueline Whyte Appleby and the Electronic Resources & Libraries conference. Our session is entitled, “More Licenses, More Problems: How to Talk to Your Users About Why eBooks are Terrible“. Not a controversial title at all, is it?! (That was all Jacqueline’s idea, I swear). The problem, as we see it, is the utter lack of consistency in eBook experience for users – across licensing and access models, platforms, formats… it’s a fractured environment.Which is okay because it’s an emerging and ever-changing landscape. But users don’t know this! Or care. They just know that eBooks are sometimes terrible. And with the introduction of new licensing models, the environment is getting more fractured, and the user experience… well, sometimes more terrible. 

In the world of academic libraries, the traditional eBook access model was fairly simple – libraries purchased single-user or multiple-user access to an eBook (allowing for either one person to access the book at a time, or multiple people to access the book at a time), and a direct link sent users to the contents of the book. There were some exceptions and variables on this, but on the whole, users expect to find a direct link in the library catalogue, and be ushered to a landing page where they can read the contents of the book.

However now, we are faced with a new eBook model – called “borrowable” eBooks. This new licensing model requires users to download a separate piece of software, create a separate login, and download the eBook into an eReader in order to access its contents. This model is old news for public libraries, where companies like Overdrive and 3M have been making popular press titles available via their eReader technologies for years. But reading behaviour and user needs are different in the academic environment, and particularly in the consortial context in which these eBooks were purchased. How will this new model impact user access?

Here in Ontario, we were introduced to this new licensing model by way of a consortial deal negotiated via OCUL, and supported on the Scholars Portal platform. We are, I think, the first consortial group ever to host this licensing model, and there was lots of amazing technical work done by Scholars Portal to make these titles accessible and available. OCUL has negotiated perpetual access to these titles via Scholars Portal, which is so critical to ensuring a world-class research collection over the long-term (which Ontario universities do indeed have, thanks to all this incredible work). Perpetual access means that if a publisher goes out of business, or gets acquired, or their servers and data centres gets hit with a meteorite…. we still have access to the eBook. Perpetual access is important.

However there are, from where I stand, some critical shortcomings of this format that will have major implications for user access. The first is that users are required to download an eReader technology – Adobe Digital Editions, or something similar. This process is clunky enough on its own, but there are tech constraints that actually prevent users from downloading this software onto in-library computer terminals. That means that if you access these titles from your personal computer or laptop, you’re able to download the software and attach the Adobe authentication to your login credentials without a problem. Oh you don’t have a personal computer? Ah, then these eBooks are not for you, my friend. Sorry! Sufficed to say, the two-tier system this creates is deeply concerning to me.

Instructors are also prohibited from including these eBooks in their course outlines because of the constraints on user access. Anyone who’s looked at user statistics will tell you that the overwhelming volume of traffic a library’s online collection receives, title by title, is driven by course readings, so presumably instructors will simply fall back on a traditional print version for course reserve instead.

The titles affected by this new model are especially important to Canadian academic libraries since they include digital content from Canadian University Presses, as well as content from Taylor and Francis. I would guess that Canadian academic libraries are the largest purchasers of Canadian UP content, and Canadian academics the largest users of Canadian UP content. For us, this content is not obscure specialised stuff, or fluffy popular stuff; Canadian UP output comprise a core pillar of Canadian research collections. Making Canadian research output accessible  is a role that we take incredibly seriously, and ones that our users simply need access to… no question. What happens with the development of online content for these publications is critical to us.

This is what we’re hoping to measure. We’re in the process of running a usability study to gauge user responses to the eBook types. What are our users anticipating when they attempt to access these titles? What are their reactions to the need for the creation of and Adobe user account and the installation of a new piece of software? Is this a workflow they have exposure to from other venues (such as leisure reading or public library use)? Where are the points of friction when they attempt to access these eBooks for the first time? For the second time?

We’re also running statistical analysis of usage data to see if there is pick-up of these titles. We’re hoping to illicit meaningful patterns across the consortial group of libraries (which I think includes the vast majority of Ontario universities), to see if there are points of friction throughout the workflow that resulted in large numbers of task abandonment, or areas that are working well.

Our hope is to bring these lessons learned to the broader library community. Publishers are pursuing similar deals with other consortial groups, and having best practices in place will hopefully help to mitigate some of the challenges our users may be facing. There may be simple interface enhancements that will help to make the process more obvious and transparent, without making major technological changes. And having specific, evidence-based improvements to bring to publishers will also give libraries a better bargaining chip when entering these sorts of agreements.

But! We will see what the data tells us. And in the meantime, I will be picking up some sunscreen and a guide to local Austin bars. For research, guys. For research.


One response to “Austin or bust

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