E-Books: Serials, Monographs or Both?
I'm the guest lecturer in a School of Information and Library Science serials class tonight. The title for today's session is “E-Books: Serials, Monographs, or Both?” I need to organize my thoughts so I don't ramble on like I did last time I talked with this class, when the topic was "Standing Orders: Serials, Monographs, or Both?”
I feel pretty comfortable talking about e-books and far less well-versed (more poorly-versed?) in serials. E-books are easier to access but harder to use in a lot of ways than their print counterparts. Some kinds of books are greatly enhanced and easily converted to an e-format, such as encyclopedias and dictionaries. Collections of discrete chapters by different authors seem to make sense to have electronically too, as long as they're accessible at the chapter level, which makes them monographic containers of journal article-esque content. Conference proceedings are a great example of this and libraries' practices vary as to whether conference proceedings are treated as serials or monographs in series. Interestingly, two of the readings for the class tonight are recaps of conference programs from NASIG, published in Serials Review, a journal. I printed the articles so I could read them on my bus commute and make notes.
My attitude about serials is library- and monograph-centric. To yours truly, serials come out as multiple pieces—issues—that are typically paid for annually and in advance; published on a predictable schedule one at a time, one to several times a year; such that each issue is defined by a number rather than a distinct title. Sometimes a journal issue may have a theme, like “reports from NASIG” or “best places to eat in Raleigh,” which is more specific and focused than the journal usually is, but which falls within the scope of the journal.
For years, libraries have handled e-journals effectively. We learned to take advantage of Big Deals, in which many titles are bundled together at a much lower price per title than the print versions used to be, but at a greater overall cost than each library used to spend for its journal content. Checking in digital serials is pointless, saving a serials department time in that regard, but licensing, record maintenance and access issues add work to the same staff. Our patrons have become comfortable in searching for information at the article level, which is facilitated in a digital environment with robust keyword searching across thousands of titles simultaneously. The efficiency of sharing a journal article is incredible thanks to the electronic format. Publishers, aggregators, vendors and libraries have taken advantage of the digital format in the serials realm to expand readers' access to information.
What seems to make e-books like journals is their digital properties, which influence how they're sold to libraries. We see a subscription model for e-book packages in which we pay annually to provide access to content in many monographic titles for our patrons. We have one such package with Springer in which we actually get perpetual access and no DRM restrictions and pay in advance for approximately 4,090 titles that are expected to be published in the subscription year. Monographic acquisitions librarians are not accustomed to buying “approximate” content. We order what we want, we know what we bought and, when it comes in, we either pay for it or send it back if it's wrong. But the Springer subscription content comes in many discrete titles, which we could easily buy, catalog and shelve as print books.
While e-book publishers tend to be more flexible about providing content in a useful and sharable format, e-book aggregators, on the other hand, often impose arbitrary DRM restrictions on e-books that we seldom see with serials and which, frankly, would render serials useless: restricting access to one reader at a time for a given title through a particular institution's purchase and restricting downloading, printing and saving by a user to a total number of pages per work, for example. While e-books are quicker to access through a library than its print books, these DRM restrictions—and the clunky platforms that are used to enforce the restrictions—inhibit the usefulness of the content in an electronic environment and cause confusion for readers when, through deliberate action on the part of the provider, they temporarily cannot access a title. Regardless, libraries are relying more and more on e-books to meet users' needs.
I don't know a simple answer to the question, “Are e-books monographs, serials, or both?” It begs more questions. Is there something fundamentally serial about digital content? Or, have libraries and vendors come to equate digital with serial? Almost all of my institution's journal subscriptions are digital, after all. I think tonight's class' title is an invitation to explore the topic rather than a chance to answer a polar question. I look forward to engaging the students in a discussion in which they can articulate the assumptions they have about serials and I can relate e-book acquisitions to their perspective.