Monday, December 17, 2012

Paying for e-resources per use

On the OEDB blog, Ellyssa Kroski pointed out this article on Forbes on the war between libraries & publishers over ebooks.  Although the author, David Vinjamuri, doesn't have a background in librarianship (he mentions that libraries are "already transforming themselves" by providing the same kinds of services libraries have been providing for decades), he does seem to have a grasp on the problems libraries are facing with the large publishers' reluctance of extending ebooks to them.   Phrasing the situation as being "at war", however, is a bit of an exaggeration - he extended the "tug of war" metaphor headlining an article from the New York Times piece from last year. But this may be picayune...

I wanted to focus this posting on his suggested solutions, notably, requiring libraries to pay for ebooks (indeed, all electronic resources) per use.  He bases this idea on the assumption that electronic resources are licensed and not sold, which itself is the key difference from books.  Essentially, the copyright law allows publishers to treat libraries as resellers of content rather than owners, which he recommends that libraries should challenge.   Taking his suggestion of a value between 50 cents and a dollar per use, I calculated the cost of our ebooks to public libraries using the mean ebook circulation reported in the latest ALA report on ebook usage in public libraries.  The 44,596 mean "circulations" (itself a difficult concept to apply to ebooks) would have cost an average of $33,447.  This is over three times the amount libraries planned to spend this year on ebooks ($10,400).  With ebook usage expected to increase, this doesn't seem to me to be a sustainable model.

Admittedly, increases are never infinite, and usage will eventually plateau, much like print circulation has.  So, if I based future ebook circulation to be similar to print circulation (an assumption fraught with problems, such as different circulation periods), I found that it would cost public libraries an average of $200,704 for the 267,606 mean circulations (calculated based on the Public Libraries Survey from 2009).  The average amount spent on collections by public libraries in 2009 was about $142,400 (Table 21A).

You can see that a pay-per-use model would not likely be sustainable.  It is, in fact, a model from which libraries have been struggling to get away since the very early days of online databases.  The problem with pay-per-use is that there is no way for the library to become efficient.  As collection assessment librarian, a key measure of efficiency of our collection is cost-per-use.  If this measure were to become fixed, our expenses would be much harder to contain.  Another factor to consider is the moral hazard of having our funds effectively spent by those who do not feel the risk directly (individual members).  By the end of the fiscal year, we would run out of money and access to resources would be restricted.

Finally, David ignores the libraries' fundamental role of preserving our culture (particularly written culture), which would not be possible in the pay-per-use model.  Access to the electronic books would be at the discretion of the publisher, and not the library.

I do fully agree that libraries need to challenge the basic assumption that libraries are resellers of electronic content and not owners.  In the meantime, I support the efforts being made for libraries to retain copies of electronic books on locally- or consortially-managed servers (a la Adobe Content Server and open-source DRM).

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