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Reading lists: E-book provision

E-books: an introduction

mobile phone and bookE-books can be fantastic resources, often providing instant, remote access to academic literature at the point of need. The Library is committed to providing as many e-books as possible, with due regard to accessibility and value for money. However the availability, licencing and pricing landscape is complicated and is in need of regulation. SCONUL (Society of College, National and University Libraries) has launched a position paper calling for immediate action from publishers and aggregators to introduce a more sustainable pricing model for e-books and e-textbooks. For an overview of the issues please refer to the JISC briefing for academic staff and the #ebookSOS campaign.

Read our blog post giving an overview of some of the issues we face when providing access to e-books.

E-book availability

  • Libraries can choose to buy any printed book that is readily available. This is not true of e-books - a much more limited range of books is provided for sale.
  • Even if a book exists as a Kindle version for an individual to buy, it doesn't mean that it's available as a library e-book.
  • Some e-books are licenced in another country (frequently the USA) but are not permitted for use in the UK. 
  • E-books can be prohibitively expensive, often hundreds and sometimes thousands of pounds. Even the most affordable are priced at up to five times the cost of the print version. 
  • Some e-books may only be made available as part of a large bundle, not sold individually.
  • Many key titles (textbooks for example) are unavailable to purchase and can only be rented at a fee per student, per unit, per year - the equivalent of buying each student a copy. The cost is often prohibitively expensive.
  • Some key titles (textbooks) are only available on a publisher's learning platform/courseware and access involves paying for an annual subscription, even if only the book (and not the learning platform) is wanted. 

The issues are brought to life in this one minute animated video from the #ebookSOS campaign:

Alternative solutions to consider

  • Consider referring to multiple books, chapters and articles and break the reliance on one single essential text. This approach spreads use amongst a wide range of materials and allows use of the Library's licence for scanning single chapters from textbooks. 

Graphic representing a chapter scan.

E-book licencing and restrictions

  • Unlike printed books which libraries own, e-books are licenced and therefore the publishers decide how they can be used.
  • The best licences allow unlimited use - we always buy this type if we can. Unlimited use means that any number of people can use the book at the same time.
  • Most e-books are sold with either a single user or three user licence, granting either one person or up to three people access to the e-book at any given time. 
  • Some e-books are sold under a credit model, for example with 200 or 400 credits per year. One credit is spent per individual accessing that e-book (any number of times) in a 24 hour period. 
  • Some publishers allow their e-books to be downloaded for a short period, for example 24 hours. Typically, if we own three copies, two can be downloaded (by one person each) and the third will just be available to read online (by one person at a time). 
  • PDF downloads are offered by some publishers, others offer time limited downloads that can only be read using e-reader software. 
  • It’s possible for us to purchase multiple single, three user or credit model e-books to accommodate high demand. Costs can mount up, but this method is still far cheaper than the e-textbook rental model, particularly longer term.  

Unlimited access e-book packages

We often buy large subject collections of e-books, like online reference and research books. These tend to have fewer restrictions than the e-books we buy individually and usually allow unlimited access. Some example collections are shown below. To see those recommended for different subjects please refer to 'Resources for your Subject' linked from the library home page.

What can you do to help?

  • Follow the campaigning work of the #ebookSOS team who are advocating for fair access to e-books for libraries.
  • Sign the Open Letter from #ebookSOS which calls on the UK parliamentary Education Select Committee, to investigate the unfair sales, pricing and licensing practice of academic publishers.
  • Considering donating to support the voluntary work of #ebookSOS.
  • Use your social media channels to highlight the challenges caused by current e-book pricing using the #ebookSOS hashtag.
  • Support open access publishing. The Library is a paid member of Open Book Publishers - our membership allows any University of Bath author interested in publishing with Open Book Publishers, to send in their proposal. More information about action that authors can take is found in the Publishing Considerations section of this guide.