The problem with ebooks

Two hands enter the screen, one from each side of the image. One is holding a smartphone which has a book spilling out of the side, the other has a pile of paper currency which is being offered in exchange.

Image from mohamed_hassan via Pixabay

Working and studying through the Coronavirus pandemic has meant that we’re more reliant on ebooks and other electronic resources than ever before. As much as we would have liked for this to be a seamless transition to hybrid learning, it’s been a struggle throughout the year to make sure that we have access to all the essential materials you need for your coursework.

One of the reasons that we’re not always able to provide ebook access is that publishers do not always make their material available electronically. They may do this for a number of reasons, one of which is that they are worried they will not make the same amount of profit from print book sales as they usually would. They may also make the price of the ebook much much higher than the price of an individual print book to compensate for this potential loss of sales. For us in the Law school, we have found problems where publishers make books only available if you purchase access to an entire database of resources, often for hundreds of thousands of pounds, when we only need access to a handful of ebooks. This is not a realistic way for us to purchase access – budgets for resources are limited and getting tighter every year.

Some academic librarians in the UK have joined forces to launch an investigation into this spike in ebook prices and limits to availability because it is seriously affecting the courses that universities are able to run. You can read more about this campaign and the open letter sent to the UK Government asking for support here: https://academicebookinvestigation.org/ 

More recently, this campaign has had some publicity in national newspapers including this article in The Guardian by Anna Fazackerley, ‘Price gouging from Covid: Student ebooks costing up to 500% more than in print’:  https://www.theguardian.com/education/2021/jan/29/price-gouging-from-covid-student-ebooks-costing-up-to-500-more-than-in-print

Last week it was announced that the Chartered Institute for Library and Information Professionals (CILIP) has petitioned the Competitions and Markets Authority to investigate this issue:
https://academicebookinvestigation.org/2021/02/04/chartered-institute-of-library-and-information-professionals-cilip-formally-petitions-competition-and-markets-authority-cma-to-investigate-practices-of-academic-ebook-publishers/ 

We wanted to draw your attention to these items so that you’re aware that action is being taken at a national level, and that librarians and academics are working hard to ensure that higher education institutions are not held to ransom over ebook access. The issues we’re facing here in Edinburgh are not unique, but they are very worrying.  We hope that the investigations that are now being proposed will result in fairer and more equitable access for all in future.

If you’re worried about ebook access to core material for your course please speak to your course organiser or email us, law.librarian@ed.ac.uk.

What is a Legal Deposit Library?

When speaking to students who live in Edinburgh library staff tell them that they can join the National Library of Scotland (NLS).

At the minute that’s not strictly true – as the NLS along with all other libraries are under restrictions. But why do we say it would be good to consider joining when we have so much in our own libraries?

The main reason is that the NLS is a Legal Deposit Library – but what does that mean?

The NLS is one of six Legal Deposit Libraries in the UK. A Legal Deposit Library is governed by specific legislation:

The Legal Deposit Libraries Act 2003
Irish Copyright and Related Rights Act 2000
Legal Deposit Libraries (Non-Print) Regulations 2013

This legislation allows these six libraries to claim a copy of any work published in the UK and Ireland, either in print or electronically as identified under the legislation. This includes more than just books and journal articles- but also newspapers and some content from the worldwide web.

So you can just imagine what they have on their shelves and servers! If you are interested in finding out more go to the information pages on the NLS:
https://www.nls.uk/about-us/legal-deposit

For law in particular, this has a great significance in Scotland. The National Library of Scotland was founded from the collection of the Faculty of Advocates’ Library, a private members’ organisation which is still considered to have one of the finest collections of Scottish Law material in existence.

From its formal opening in 1689, the Advocates Library in Edinburgh rapidly developed into the finest library in Scotland. Following the introduction of the Library’s legal deposit privilege in 1710, its book collection grew at an ever-increasing rate.

The Advocates Library gradually came to be seen as Scotland’s national library in all but name. In 1925, an Act of Parliament formally established the National Library of Scoland. The Faculty of Advocates then gifted its collection — with the exception of legal material — to the country.

(National Library of Scotland, ‘Advocates Collection’)

We have such a wonderful opportunity for access to rare and unusual material from having both the Advocates’ and NLS collections just around the corner from our campus, and so we highly recommend students take advantage of the resources they have available.