by Clayton Hayes, Head Editor, INALJ North Dakota
Digital Monographs: There’s Still a Long Way to Go
In many libraries, especially academic libraries, remote resources have become more or less a standard. It has come to be expected that an academic library will have access to a wide variety of scholarly materials, both in the form of articles and in the form of monographs. This isn’t surprising; as more and more of our lives revolve around the internet and online or digital materials, it only makes sense that library and scholarly resources would follow suit. It’s not just a matter of satisfying patron needs, either. New developments in collection development, like demand- or patron-driven acquisition systems, have made it much easier and much more cost-effective for libraries to collect monographs digitally. What, though, are the costs of this shift towards digital monographs?
In my experience, library users understand the rules governing the access of journal articles available online. Most online resources operate under similar rules: if the library has purchased access to a journal, then the articles in that journal can be read online or downloaded by library users. The number of simultaneous users often makes no difference, and this makes sense to users. They understand that digital resources are not commodities; if they purchase and download a song on iTunes, they know that it doesn’t prevent other users from doing the same. This is how they understand digital resources to work, and is perhaps why so much confusion surrounds digital monographs.
Digital monographs do not follow the same rules as most online resources. Publishers have, in order to preserve their revenue streams, equipped most of the digital monographs licensed to libraries with strict limitations on the number of simultaneous users (referred to as “seats”) and on downloads. The fact that users aren’t allowed to download these monographs is not a complete surprise, since services like Netflix and YouTube don’t allow their hosted videos or movies to be downloaded. It is instead the first limitation on simultaneous users that causes so many problems for users.
First and foremost, library users don’t expect such limitations to exist. Though there are popular online services that do limit the number of simultaneous users, the individuals using them rarely run into these restrictions. As far as they’re concerned, these restrictions may as well not exist. The limitations are meant to imitate the use of physical monographs as much as is possible, but library users expect digital monograph services to operate in the same way as digital resources like journal articles. To make matters worse, each publisher or platform has its own rules, and the number of seats rarely agrees from platform to platform.
Second, once users are familiar with the limitations surrounding digital monographs, there is no way for library users to know whether or not they will be able to access a particular monograph. A platform’s interface often gives no indication of the number of seats, nor does it inform the user of how many seats are already filled. Users have no way to know if or when a particular monograph will be available. Librarians, though they may know more about the service’s restrictions, often do not have information beyond the most basic guidelines provided by the publisher.
Libraries are meant to serve the needs of their patrons.
Though the patron-driven acquisition model of collection development can help the library to save money, serious questions should be raised as to the usefulness of the titles provided through these digital content platforms. As it stands, restrictions placed on the use of these titles prevent them from being as useful as journal articles distributed online. The move towards digital monographs is not likely to stop anytime soon, though, and it is the responsibility of librarians and other information professionals to push for licensing agreements that further the usefulness of these resources as opposed to restricting them.