16 January 2012

Happy birthday ebooks@cambridge!

This post is a slice of virtual birthday cake for ebooks@cambridge ...

The original project team
... which began when the six College librarians, seen here in front of a wall of rare books just to demonstrate their utter versatility, got together to work out how to buy electronic books for Cambridge University staff and students.   [Cambridge is unusual in that it has a large University Library, separate Faculty and Department libraries plus Colleges each with a library - they are all autonomous to some extent, Colleges in particular, but work together in different ways.]  

Anne Jarvis and Sarah Stamford at the launch

In January 2006 the first batch of ebooks went live (keen-eyed readers will note a numerical theme developing here) and, being librarians of the jolly sort, invited all our mates to a launch party.  With cake.
Six years on and the project has grown into a fully-fledged service with a collection of over 6,000 ebooks.  

We were extremely fortunate to attract start-up funding from Professor Robert Z. Aliber, and in subsequent years from the Isaac Newton Trust.  Their support enabled us to build the service and, in due course, to attract contributions from virtually all the Cambridge libraries.  Critically, we saw the project as being not only an acquisitions process but also a complete service to librarians and readers, from selection to purchase and on to online help, guidance sessions, promotion materials and feedback.

2010 Guidance session for librarians
It hasn't always been straightforward, as anyone working with ebooks and libraries will appreciate.  We have dealt with a number of suppliers, each with different processes, licensing terms and platforms; grappled with library catalogue records which varied from the useful to the ... less useful, and survived various technical hitches and platform crashes. 

The 2007 project team (minus a couple)
As the project developed the team expanded, allowing us to bring together expertise from all sectors of Cambridge libraries.  This brought home to us the realisation that no one library, or group of libraries, was in a position to direct the future of the service, we had to work together.  Thus, apart from a few hitches, it evolved collaboratively.

So what are the challenges today?

Moving from print to digital. 
The argument that academic libraries should follow the path of journal provision by switching from buying print to electronic books has been around for a while, so I won't repeat here. As far as Cambridge is concerned, I'd point out that librarians are obliged to meet the requirements of their readers, and if there is still a need for print (as there is at present) this shouldn't be dismissed lightly. At a time of critical financial pressure we must retain a healthy scepticism about both the ebook landscape and the bibliosaurs who cannot countenance any change. The future from the Cambridge librarians' point of view, has to be strategic, flexible and evaluative; the pace of change and the extent to which is applied needs to be addressed promptly and collaboratively.

Although publishers are releasing more new publications as ebooks, and backlists are being mined for corpses into which new digital life can be breathed, very little has changed with regard to textbooks since 2006. It looks like publishers will seek to replace the print sales of textbooks by marketing them as ebooks to students on e-readers. Not good news for libraries who serve undergraduates.  But publishing is in turmoil as much as librarianship.  We can eagerly anticipate a war between Apple and Amazon to capture and exclusively control content, which can be packaged and made available on their devices.  If, more likely when, this happens publishers, booksellers, ebook aggregators, librarians and Uncle Tom Cobbley will find themselves very much on the sidelines. However, there are ...

... New opportunities.
Librarians have a great past and present as organisers and purveyors of information.  There is terrific potential for us to work with academic authors and students in creating, disseminating and developing digital materials for research and teaching.  We're not done yet.

So here's to the next six years!  Cheers!

Jayne Kelly, ebooks@cambridge Administrator maintains the service ethos

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