InfoIssues: May 2005 | Mansfield Library | The University of Montana-Missoula

The University of Montana Libraries—Missoula

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A publication of the faculty of the Mansfield Library at the University of Montana

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To comment on this issue or to suggest an issue, please contact Jennie Burroughs, Chair, Key Constituencies Committee.


The Next InfoIssues will be released on August 15, 2005.

Issue of the Month: May 2005

E-Books and Electronic Serials:
Why is the Market Different?

-Chris Mullin, Associate Professor
Special Collections Librarian

Why are we are not providing electronic access to more books? We provide over 20,000 electronic journals, but e-books are different from journals in several ways. First, most people who use online journals don’t read entire issues online. They find one article and they print it out. They don’t want to print out entire books! The printing cost is too high. The big bundle of pages is hard to manage. Many people also don’t want to read an entire book on the screen of a computer. It’s not as comfortable as reading a printed book.

Some people are content to read books on their PDAs. If you have a Palm or a Pocket PC, you might want to try this. Many reader software packages are available, and most of the software is either free for downloading, or comes along with your reading device. For one source of content, see Fictionwise; they have over 20,000 books available, in 10 different software formats, for PDAs and PCs.

But the PDA screen is usually tiny. A dedicated reading device works better. The Mansfield Library owns four REB 1100 E-Book readers, each loaded with several books and has them on reserve. Titles range from the Nanny Diaries to the Linux Kernel Module Programming Guide. Do a call number search in our catalog on the call number "E-Book" (note the hyphen!) to see them. You can check one out for a week at a time! This is a really satisfactory way to read books.

With e-book readers you can insert bookmarks and handwritten notes on the pages. There’s adjustable backlighting. It’s the best way I’ve ever found to read in bed without disturbing your bedmate. And every book on the device is available in large print if you prefer! With a well-designed e-book reader like this one, reading is about as pleasant as it is to read a book printed on paper, and much nicer than if you are using a typical PDA. You get your books from the internet, and can have dozens of them accessible at once. Instead of a huge stack of volumes, one little e-Book. So what’s the catch?

Copyright and Pricing

It boils down to the question of purchasing the right to provide electronic access to books that are still in copyright. Unlike journal publishers, book publishers sell new copies of the same book for years. If they run out of copies, they print more. Their books are protected by copyright (as are journals). Today, almost every book copyrighted in 1923 is still in copyright! As things are, the only e-books you can get are those that copyright holders want you to have, or those that are (mostly) from before 1923. Publishers initially showed some interest in e-book technology. Then they: 1) got scared that illegal copies would be made; and 2) discovered that most people don’t want to pay as much for a digital file as they do for a book made of paper. Not all publishers allow their books to be published as e-books. There’s no way to get The Lord of the Rings as a legal e-book, for example. Anybody can scan The Lord of the Rings into their PC but they can get arrested if they try to sell the results to you.

This is all changing rapidly. Google is now digitizing millions of books from the University of Michigan, Harvard University, Stanford University, the New York Public Library, and Oxford University, and also the books currently in print from many cooperating publishers. To see actual books, do a Google search that starts with the word “books,” like "Books tarzan." If you try that one, you discover the catch with Google Print. Tarzan of the Apes, which pops right up in two versions, was published in 1914 and is in the public domain. Anybody can reprint it. You could get Tarzan of the Apes free from Blackmask.com, for instance, or you could buy e-book versions from many other sources.. But what Google has digitized so far is two versions, each with some new copyrighted material. You can only read a few pages of either before Google Print refuses to open another page. When the millions of library books have been digitized, there will be a lot of out-of-copyright items you can browse from cover to cover. However, it appears that Google Print will not allow printing or downloading.

My own suspicion is that having all these millions of books digitized but unavailable will lead to some publishers making it possible to pay with a credit card and download them to your PC. Perhaps this will influence Congress to change the copyright laws so that more books can come out of copyright sooner. Right now, only about one percent of the books published in 1930 are still in print. There are a few people who would like to read some of the rest, but not enough to justify reprinting them on paper. In many cases, nobody even knows who actually owns the copyright on these books. So nobody can reprint them! But in a few years, they will all be digitized. And unreadable! You will have to do what you do now, and buy used copies, unless things change.

Reading E-Books

Another reason e-books have not been as popular as e-serials is that people are used to printed books. If they buy books at all, they frequently want to keep them. Having a physical volume on the shelf, available for reading 50 years later, seems more secure than having a file on your hard drive, or on a reading device that might break. A lot of people who have found a satisfactory reading platform will pay some money for an e-book, but won’t pay hardback list prices. A lot of people don’t want to read books on the PCs or PDAs that they might already own. They don’t know they could buy a dedicated e-book reader, or even that they exist.

What about e-books for libraries? The Mansfield Library has, besides our REB 1100 readers, almost 11,000 e-Books to which we offer internet access. Registered borrowers can get a username and password at the netLibrary website and check one out for 24 hours at a time. Just renew it unless somebody else wants to read it. We only own one copy of each book, just as we usually only own one copy of a printed book. 7400 of these are recent books, published in the last few years. The rest are public-domain classics anybody can access, even if their library has not bought titles from netLibrary. Over 40,000 books are available.

How do you read these electronic files? The same way you read any other web page, using an Internet-connected computer. You see all the illustrations and the original typeface of the printed books. You cannot download the books to your own PC or a PDA. You can only print one page at a time. If you have your own laptop computer, reading these books is more comfortable than if you must read them on one of the computers near the front door of the library.

Reading them on a dedicated e-book reader (like the REB 1100 or the newer e-Bookwise 1150) might be even more comfortable, but in order to allow that, we would have to buy another copy of those books, and probably the in-print books would not even be available for the dedicated device. Fictionwise offers another option that allows library users to check out books via the library website to their own PDAs or computers, but you couldn’t read them on library computers, like you can a netLibrary book. You could not keep books on your device forever, because the files expire.

Until copyright laws change, and/or publishers get smart enough to sell electronic versions of their books for less than paperbacks, and until ordinary PCs turn into better reading platforms, most people probably won’t read a lot of e-Books.

To learn more about e-books and digital copyright issues try these links:

The Online Books Page

Project Gutenberg

Copyright Basics

Copyright Issues: American Library Association

To comment on this issue or to suggest an issue, please contact Jennie Burroughs, Chair, Key Constituencies Committee.