E-books serve as valid alternative
Librarians decide which books a library should buy and students take what they can get, an archetype that Rick Anderson, associate dean of scholarly resources and collections at the Marriott Library, calls the “eat your peas” library model.
Anderson is helping usher the library into an era of Patron-Driven Acquisition in which the needs of library users determine which books end up in the collection.
In fact, they’ll end up in many places — on your smartphone, on your computer at home, sometimes on your Kindle — everywhere except the library’s shelves. Library policy states that if a desired title is available electronically, the library will opt for the e-book over the physical copy.
“When it comes to sitting and reading a book beginning to end, a codex-bound book is a really good thing,” Anderson said. “But it’s really bad at delivering discrete information.”
Books are a hassle — they are hard to transport, you have to go to the library during operating hours to get them and only one person can use a book at a time.
It is also impossible to search the full text of a book, a valuable tool for a researcher or scholar armed with specific keywords.
“You can search the index, but that is radically incomplete,” Anderson said.
E-books are not a flawless solution. Reading on a screen is less comfortable than reading from paper, and the variety of platforms and providers make the medium unreliable.
“We like the competition between platforms, because that’s how they’ll improve,” Anderson said.
He acknowledged that there is no consistency with the e-book experience, however.
Until now, a fruitful research technique in the library has been to get a few call numbers of books on the research topic then browse the shelves around those books for other helpful titles.
The wider selection of books available to library users through an online collection make up for the loss of the physical books. Instead of the 10 books on either side of the call number you picked, you have thousands of books on the topic, Anderson said.
But how will e-books make themselves known to students who don’t know what they’re looking for?
In the short run, students will have to learn new search skills. An advanced subject search on the library’s catalog can yield the same results as a visit to the stacks, but it requires an extra step students are not used to taking.
Eventually, Patron-Driven Acquisition will mean that any book is available. A library can offer users a catalog of thousands of books that it doesn’t have to buy until the student decides to check one out. Such specific purchasing efficiently directs the library’s funds to the books students want to read.
“An arguably fine collection that fails to meet the actual real-life needs of the scholarly population it is supposed to serve is not a ‘good’ collection in any meaningful sense,” Anderson said in an article.
The search system will continue to improve as the inventory expands, he said.
“The purpose of the collection isn’t to be a great collection — it’s to connect patrons with exactly what they need,” he said.
Although I am intrigued by the prospects that the Patron-Driven Acquisition model presents, I worry that students won’t know how to properly access the materials the system provides.