28 February 2013

Ebooks and the future of Cambridge College libraries

Each year the ebooks@cambridge team meets Cambridge's constituent library groups, today it was the turn of the Colleges and we were kindly invited to Lucy Cavendish College by Catherine Reid.  Presentations from this meeting, and from the subsequent meeting for Faculty and Departmental librarians, are available here, and Andy Priestner's "Ebook utopia" is here.

Jayne Kelly performed a heroic feat, compressing a significant amount of information on service developments into a limited time frame, and covering new platforms, funding, acquisition models, usage statistics and, as ever, the trials and challenges of ebooks.

This was followed by Catherine's clear and helpful demo of searching for and locating ebooks using the library catalogue.

The final section was my own presentation on Cambridge College libraries. It focussed on two key factors which in my opinion are critical to their future : changes to academic publishing and to the University and its library services. You can find the slides here.

While academic ebook publishing is struggling to comes to terms with the digital revolution it is tempting for librarians to leave its complexity to others to a couple of specialists to deal with.  I fear this is unwise.

Within the Cambridge system we can't see ebooks as an issue which can be handed over to a few interested people or particular library to deal with.  We should all be up to speed in this area.  Colleges in particular have invested considerable sums of money in the ebooks@cambridge service and should by now (in my opinion) be integrating ebooks into their collection policies, their acquisitions workflows and their readers' services.

It is important for Faculty and Departmental libraries to work more closely with the Colleges to share information and enable better purchasing decisions. However, an ebook doesn't "belong" to the ordering library.  Its origin matters in terms of autonomy of choice, administration and funding but, once purchased, the ebook becomes part of a shared resource.  Our ebooks collection can be exploited by any library to benefit its readers and promote its value to the institution.

Working collaboratively means that each group of libraries can develop their expertise and resources to benefit the common good, ie readers.  We each bring something to the table and the consequence of this collaboration has been a highly successful service.  I strongly believe that the forum where a future strategy can best be developed has to be ebooks@cambridge.

A word about those (particularly College) libraries that prefer to remain print oriented.  This may be an institutional requirement.  But I would advise this should be as a consequence of strategic planning, and librarians should take care to gather evidence and evaluate their possible options. To take that policy through lack of awareness is, frankly, no longer acceptable, and leaves that library highly vulnerable to future change.  Time is running out.


  1. Very true!

    How do you envisage Faculty & Departmental librarians could work more closely with College librarians on this matter? Send an email to the college librarians when an ebook in our subject in purchased? Encourage college librarians to contact the relevant faculties with subject-specific ebook suggestions?

    One caveat though, faculy & departmental librarians who know their stock and its use should also feel free to refuse an ebook suggestion if they don't deem it appropriate.

    What do you think?

    1. Caveat first : Yes F/D librarian should be aware of what is on their reading lists and the hot topics. However, their judgement of the value of an ebook isn't just about "their stock". A better decision would be reached by taking account of the number of copies held and the level of use of those in Colleges and at UL.

      So sharing information is where we could work more closely together. A clearer picture of which F/Ds do what and the strengths of the different College collections would be helpful (I have only just discovered one Faculty library doesn't really provide for postgrads, while there is another that doesn't do undergrads).

      College librarians should already be contacting F/Ds with suggestions for ebook purchases. Information about purchases is already circulated to us by the ebooks team via the email list.