Acquiring e-books for college and university libraries

Two emerging models for obtaining e-books: Demand-driven acquisition and evidence-based acquisition
By: | Issue: July, 2019
June 18, 2019
ACQUIRE BY DEMAND—Demand-driven acquisition is practiced at the University of Dayton for less expensive e-book purchasing. Here, Associate Professor of Psychology Viorel Paslaru spends time inside Roesch Library reading an e-book.ACQUIRE BY DEMAND—Demand-driven acquisition is practiced at the University of Dayton for less expensive e-book purchasing. Here, Associate Professor of Psychology Viorel Paslaru spends time inside Roesch Library reading an e-book.

When the library at Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland purchased e-books in the past, the vast majority of titles would end up sitting on e-shelves untouched, a three-year study showed. But after library administrators adopted a demand-driven system for acquiring the materials, virtually all the new e-books were being read.

That’s because their purchasing tool for e-books now relies on data assessing whether patrons have downloaded the content. “It not only allows us to give our users what they actually want to be using, but we’re also able to track that usage moving forward,” says Liz Bernal, library assessment officer at Case Western.

New acquisition models have become more widely embraced as college and university libraries have shifted their purchasing toward e-books, a trend driven by publishers and students who prefer reading on digital devices.

“Libraries are not buying that many print titles,” says Louis Jordan, an associate librarian at the University of Notre Dame in Indiana. “Clearly, electronic books are far more accessible.”

While some academic libraries favor one acquisition model, many are using a combination to purchase e-books. Here are some advantages and disadvantages of the two major e-book acquisition systems that many libraries have adopted: demand-driven acquisition (DDA) and evidence-based acquisition (EBA).

Demand-driven acquisition

University of Dayton Libraries in Ohio needed a more accurate way to determine which e-books to select for faculty and students. In 2013, officials adopted a DDA system.

Librarians had traditionally chosen e-books based on faculty recommendations and curricula evaluations. “Many of the titles selected were excellent books,” says Fred Jenkins, associate dean for 
collections for the libraries. “They fit the needs of the campus, but they didn’t 
get used.”

Adopting DDA took the guesswork out of book selection. Under this model, the libraries automatically purchase an e-book when it reaches a certain threshold of usage. The number of downloads triggering a charge ranges from one to three, depending on the contract with the publisher.

E-book acquisition models compared

Demand-driven acquisition (DDA)

• Offers libraries access to thousands of e-books

• A certain threshold of usage is reached, such as three downloads of an e-book, triggering costs

• Library has perpetual access to the e-book once a purchase is triggered by a specified number of downloads or chapter views

• Weekly or monthly invoices generated by publishers for e-book purchases

Evidence-based acquisition (EBA)

• Upfront fee covers unlimited access to a collection of e-books for one year

• Books chosen for purchase based on usage

• Upfront fee applied toward the cost of purchasing the e-books

• Cost controlled by the annual fee

One of the key benefits of this model is access to thousands of e-books that libraries would not have been able to purchase otherwise. At the end of the year, libraries only pay for the e-books that are downloaded.

At Case Western, 73% of the e-books that librarians selected from 2012 to 2015 were never used. When the library began a three-year DDA pilot project, however, all the titles that were purchased were read.

“We really needed to do more DDA and let our users pick, so that they were selecting materials with repeated usage,” says Stephanie Church, acquisitions and metadata services librarian.

One concern with the model is that libraries lose control over their budget because purchases are patron-driven. Annual costs vary since prices for e-books range from $30 to $40 for humanities titles to $300 to $400 for science titles, Jordan says.

“If you have 20 science books people are using, then you’ve spent several thousand dollars in a matter of maybe an afternoon,” he adds. For that reason, Jordan says libraries, including Notre Dame’s, typically do not purchase higher-priced science titles in a demand-driven system.

Administrators can, however, estimate their spend using DDA based on previous year data. “You keep an eye on it all year, but after the first year, you have a very good prediction to make sure it doesn’t go askew because it’s based on the number of students and the number of courses,” says Judith Lin Hunt, dean of library services and library administration at Montclair State University in New Jersey.

Related story: Library consortium adopts EBA model for e-book acquisition


Evidence-based acquisition

EBA, a newer purchasing model, gives librarians greater control in selecting titles. The library pays an upfront fee to gain access to thousands of e-books for a year, and at the end of the contract, officials decide which titles to buy based on usage.

On average, libraries gain access to 10 times the amount of the purchase price. If a library pays $20,000 to buy into an EBA plan, for example, it gets about $200,000 of content, says Bonnie Allen, recently retired dean of the James E. Walker Library at Middle Tennessee State University.

While this purchasing model has been adopted by individual libraries of all sizes, it has also been used by groups, such as the Pennsylvania Academic Library Consortium Inc. (PALCI), which has 69 members. In a pilot project launched for the 2016-17 academic year with JSTOR, which offers access to e-books and e-journals, PALCI started an EBA program that provided 25,000 e-books to 47 of its member schools. Today, the number of e-books available has grown to 42,000.

More on campus libraries: How campus libraries can compete with the web 

“You’re paying for unlimited access during the terms of the agreement,” says Jill Morris, executive director of PALCI. “At the end, we get to own some content based on how many people have used it.”

Such an acquisition model typically has not been used with journals, but Case Western is running a test project on it with ProQuest, the e-journals and e-books provider. Case Western has access to a collection of more than 70 databases, including newspaper archives, journals and historical documents.

The project is helping to offset a declining budget that limits purchases of databases, which cost up to $40,000 per year. “We don’t always have the money to invest in a database, especially when we’re not going to be sure if there will be usage of it,” says Church.

Whether the acquisition method is DDA or EBA, price is just one factor that should be considered as libraries move to these purchasing models, Allen says.
“It isn’t as much about saving money as it is about buying what people need and use,” she says. “If you buy books that people never use, you’re never saving money because you’re not providing the kinds of services that you want.”

Sherrie Negrea, based in Ithaca, New York, is a frequent contributor to UB.