Libraries and Learning

No Big Deal

March 28, 2019

Perhaps the era of the Big Deal is ending. It hasn’t been sustainable for years, and now research libraries around the country are following the lead of the University of California and several European library consortia, walking away from deals that extract money from subscriptions and authors at an extortionate price. (Publishers argue they provide good value, but 35 percent profit margins are not normal.) Is the tide turning? Have we woken up at last?

Or have we failed to learn our lesson? A colleague told me the other day that a library like ours, but with more money and staff, is no longer buying books in print. They’re putting virtually all of their book budget into licensing ebook packages from publishers and vendors. They’re investing in Big Deals, in other words.

This seems odd to me. Ebooks may be great for commuter campuses and online programs. At residential undergraduate colleges with a liberal arts curriculum, it’s not a hardship for students to go to the library, and they seem to feel reading long-form arguments is easier in print than from a PDF or ePub document, especially if digital rights management is involved. (From my limited experience, none of the academic book platforms use Amazon Kindle’s proprietary format, though it dominates the trade ebook market.)

For undergraduates, there’s also value having a curated library collection that is tailored to the curriculum and the kinds of reading experiences that enrich a liberal arts education. Paying for access to everything a publisher has to offer may make sense at an R1, but providing such abundance simply outsources curation to students, who probably find browsing six shelves of hand-picked books easier than six thousand books written for all kinds of audiences. And what about the smaller and alternative presses that aren’t represented in these Big Deals? Here, help yourself to every book Oxford and Springer Nature publishes, but don’t ask for anything from Coffee House, Milkweed, or Haymarket books. They’re not part of the deal.

That library is not a total outlier. Earlier this week, I had some upper-division classes in the library doing research on topics where it made sense to click a handy button in our catalog to search “libraries worldwide” – but several times students were lost, looking for the “request” button. For mysterious reasons, Worldcat seems to push ebooks above print books in results lists. I had to point out the small “print books” limiter and explain you can’t request ebooks – they’re only licensed for a single campus, or at least are so often limited there is no process in place for requesting a digital book. If lots of libraries go with Big Deals for books, interlibrary sharing, one of the great inventions of the 20th century, will wither.

While our system is dandy for finding things we’re not allowed to share, it’s not always great at discovering open access materials. Quite often, an open access publication listed in a database or a book in the catalog will fail to link to the item, and that confuses students. The behind-the-scenes work that has to go into making things connect from one database to another or from a catalog to an electronic source is complex, and it may seem silly to worry about cataloging something that can be found with a Google search – but if our shared catalogs lead to things we can’t borrow but fail to find open access books, we’re really dropping the ball.

Shortly after that conversation about buying nothing but ebooks, a colleague noticed we can access lots of books through Project MUSE, which I had thought of as a collection of journals because apparently I haven’t been paying attention. We haven’t licensed ebooks through MUSE, but a lot of high-quality open access books now turn up in a search thanks to a Mellon-funded project to make them more discoverable. These are well-organized and do appear in our catalog. That’s the way to do it.

I doubt I’ll ever be convinced that ebooks alone are the way to go for libraries. Our students seem to still prefer print and the rights we surrender when licensing ebooks are precious. I’m grateful that more and more academic books are available as open access ebooks – there is a wide readership without affiliation with a university library that stands to benefit. But I hope libraries think twice before signing up for another kind of Big Deal. We’ve been there before, and it doesn’t end well.


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Babel Fish Bouillabaisse II Copyright © 2019 by Barbara Fister is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.