The Wonders (and Limits) of E-books

The way we conduct our research, teach our classes, and communicate with others has increasingly taken an online medium. While our online presence has certainly been amplified by the COVID-19 Pandemic, many of the online tools we rely on today have been around for decades, including the electronic book, or e-book. For this month’s collections blog post, I’d like to share some of the efforts conducted behind the scenes that help our patrons access the materials you need from the comfort of home.

If you have used our library before, you may have tried to open an e-book through our catalog and were met with some variation of an “already in use” message. But how could that be? If the library has the book electronically, couldn’t anyone with access to our resources read it on their own screens? After all, it’s not like someone has checked out a physical copy and brought it home, temporarily removing it from circulation. Well, in some ways, e-books still function like physical materials in the library.

Although there are plenty of advantages to having tens of thousands of e-books in our catalog, what may seem like an always-accessible resource will typically have certain accessibility roadblocks behind the hyperlink. To understand why some e-books allow an entire class to access the content at one time, while others allow only two concurrent users, we have to look into how e-books are purchased.

When purchasing an e-book, librarians are typically faced with multiple listings with varied prices, platforms, and seats. The latter factor, seats, is a term used to determine how many patrons can open that e-book on their computer at one time. An e-book with two seats will allow two patrons to read it, but if a third patron were to try and access the e-book, they will be turned away. Some e-books will only be available for purchase with one seat, others could be unlimited and allow an entire class to read at once. In the last blog post, we discussed the complexity of purchasing e-books for academic libraries, and seat limits are just one of many considerations librarians must keep in mind while curating the collection.

So, what happens behind the scenes when a patron is denied access to an e-book? Many platforms record this information, keeping track of how many times a user was denied access to a particular e-book, and sending a “turnaway report” to us, sometimes in real time. The turnaways are then analyzed by our library staff, and we often make case-by-case decisions to purchase an additional one user copy or even upgrade our existing copy to account for more users. These decisions are made based on trends in turnaway numbers, the frequency or concentration of the turnaways, and the price modeling for the e-book. Sometimes within the hour we can expand access, other times it may take a few months for a large enough trend to warrant an extra purchase.

E-books are a wonderful tool for combating accessibility issues, and we can provide more materials to our patrons than ever before. But even electronic resources sometimes have their limits, so we work diligently to ensure these gaps in access and turnaways happen as infrequently as possible.

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