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GUEST BLOG: “I’m sorry, but I can’t help you…” E-only works create challenges for serving patrons

By Anne Behler
Information Literacy Librarian
Penn State   University Libraries
Member of OITP E-book Task Force


Uttering the words, “I’m sorry, but I can’t help you” generally goes against the fiber of who librarians are as a profession. Sure, there are circumstances in which the library is not the right service for the problem, but I’d be hard pressed to find a colleague who wouldn’t bend over backward to, at the very least, assist a person with locating the right service. Built on a foundation of free information to all who would seek it, libraries are symbols of democracy and champions of open access to all forms of publication. So it’s certainly a tough pill to swallow that this is a line that we may find ourselves uttering more frequently, thanks to the proliferation of books that are only published in electronic format and served up by accounts designed for private, individual access only.

Consider this encounter:

One morning this week, our general reference desk received a phone call from an individual who was doing research. He was actually located at another, smaller college in the state, but his librarians could not help him. So he tried us (a much larger, state resource university). His basic problem:

1) He does not own a personal computer or electronic reader and does not want one.
2) He located a book through that he very much wanted to access — it’s only available in e-book format both through Amazon and Barnes & Noble.
3) His library does not have a device lending program, nor does it allow installation of anything on its public-use computers. Thus any proprietary software required to read an e-book was unavailable to him through his library.
4) He was willing to do anything so that his library could have access to this title and therefore lend it to him and others, such as buy the e-book and donate it to the collection. However, this is not possible with the e-book files, which are account dependent information.
5) He was wondering whether any of the libraries involved could ILL the title to one another for his use (again, not possible due to account and device dependent information).

I think you get the picture. Because this title was published in e- only (an author/publisher choice, no doubt) this individual who did not have access to personal technology devices was at a complete loss – and I was at a complete loss to assist him beyond giving suggestions about how he might borrow computers or devices to be able to download the files and read them. (He was also hoping to print out the book once acquired, which was not likely to be possible either, nor does it comply with copyright, of course). Or he could talk with his librarian about what specifically is required to be able to view the e-books on a machine at the library and hope that they could bend enough to let him install the viewing software on one machine.

He and I had a very good discussion about the issues at hand, and I think he went away feeling like he had something to advocate for — for himself and for libraries. But in that moment that he asked his question, and I tried to respond, I could not rely on any traditional library tools to assist him. No interlibrary loan, no printing, no “I’ll purchase it for the library on your behalf and lend it to you,” etc.

Some thoughts that I hope will prompt further discussion:

At lot of discussions around e-books and electronic content focus on marketing the e-books that people can access through the library, how to make good collection development decisions about what to purchase and how to negotiate fair licenses.  And I’ve heard many of us acknowledge that an e- only library is not something that promotes access for all; print copies that might duplicate e-book collections are going to be with us for a long time to come. But this situation was a stark reminder to me that we should give a nod to the elephant in the room — okay, maybe just one of the many elephants in the room — and acknowledge and address the issue of information that isn’t available at all. Or rather, is only available to those who decide to purchase a luxury device and create an information-sharing, privacy-compromising account. Access to information in this environment is certainly not equal, and so far, there doesn’t seem to be much the library can do about it. Is this something we are willing to accept? If not, how can we speak up?

The views expressed in this guest blog post do not necessarily reflect that of the ALA.

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  1. Starbookzzz Starbookzzz

    What would your feeling be if the patron wanted interloan of the Book of Kells? Wouldn’t you try to provide him with a reasonable alternative?

  2. Anne Anne

    Thanks for your comment. To answer your question – yes. Yes, I would certainly work to provide a reasonable alternative for someone seeking a difficult or impossible to acquire research resource or artifact.

    Things change, however, when what a person seeks is ONLY available in a commercially marketed proprietary digital format. And each and every one of those adjectives is key to why I was of no help.

    The person I was working with was doing research, and was looking for a primary source – a novel by the author about whom he was researching. However, as noted, because this title was only published for an e-reader or suitable software – neither of which is available on a public machine at a library (or, to be fair, at this person’s library) – I did not have the option to substitute something else. And even if there were only one copy in the whole wide world, I couldn’t make a scan, because it does not physically exist. Perhaps there is some way out there to purchase the title, and then reflow it into the proper format. But should we – or, more importantly, our library users – have to jump through hoops (and potentially break the law) in order to provide access to digital materials? With not only secondary, but primary sources being born digital, we are potentially in a lot of trouble when it comes to access.

  3. Renaldo Renaldo

    I think we need to recognize that e-publishing is not an ‘alternative’ form of publishing, but rather a completely novel and revolutionary way to publish. E-only publications will continue to grow and flourish, and will increasingly become a variable that librarians need to learn to integrate into their thinking.

  4. Anne Anne

    I totally agree…So do you think we should just accept that some things won’t be accessible? How can we best help our users to deal with this, and, if necessary, integrate it into their own thinking?

  5. Geoff Geoff

    The issue described here wouldn’t stop me from helping this patron. It is very easy to get to what he needs if he has done most of the legwork. He knows what book he wants!

    There is a service called Jolicloud:
    This service acts very much like an operating system akin to android. You log into it via a browser and add apps to it. It has access to a Kindle app that can be used to read ebooks. If he purchases the ebook, and creates a jolicloud account, he could read the book on any computer with a web browser and internet access. This is just one of a few ways to solve the issue. There are others that are more complicated, but this is the simplest that I know of.

  6. Shirley Shirley

    I agree with Renaldo and it is the authors right to decide how to make their work available.
    Not to sound callous, but I think the student needs to give up his ludite status and purchase a laptop or personal computing device to give relevance to his education. I do not think it is the library’s responsibility to purchase every title or software necessary to access every title.

  7. Carrie Carrie

    Does the material have to be unavailable to the customer and the library? This may be a crazy suggestion, but what is wrong with a library purchasing an ereader or a few ereaders, depending on you service population, for this very situation. Imagine receiving a request for a title only available as an ebook and being able to purchase, download it and check it out to the customer. And, we could do this in a much shorter time than ordering the book, waiting for it to arrive, processing the title, and then contacting your customer to tell them that the item is available for them to check out.

    I don’t think I will touch the copyright issue mentioned in you post.

  8. Tony Billoni Tony Billoni

    Toughest librarian reference question: What is love?
    Easiest one: Is that clock got the right time?

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