Since I spent 5 years working in libraries, I’ve followed the Google Book Search and Google Library with some interest. Today, Danny Sullivan at Search Engine Watch posted a great rundown of the next big development in the area – Google Partnering With Publishers to Sell Online Books. His post is so thorough that I hardly feel I can contribute anything to the discussion.
I’ll be very curious to see what kind of pricing model the publishers come up with. Danny mentions that the program currently won’t allow copies of the book to be saved or printed – it doesn’t mention whether the purchase of these online books will provide permanent access or not, however.
During much of the time I worked in libraries, the debate over e-journals was very hot. On the one hand, purchasing journals in electronic form allowed libraries to deal with one crucial concern – space. On the other hand, the only guarantee of long-term access to these journals were claims by the publisher that access would be permanent. Not every publisher would even offer this – many would only provide access to the e-journal archives for as long as you continued your subscription to the journal.
Publishers have taken advantage of the world of electronic access to rewrite the concept of ownership – you no longer purchase a journal, to have and to hold, until death shall we part. Instead, you license it. You have access to that journal for as long as the publisher agrees to allow it.
The frightening thing about the archiving of e-journals was that for all the claims of permanent access from the publisher, you never had a true guarantee. Has the publisher made arrangements for what happens if they go out of business? Will they honor their licenses if they’re purchased by another company?
If e-journals were actually cheaper than paper copies, I think that people would be more willing to take these risks. Instead, they take them because they must. Electronic access is the way researchers look for new publications. Students expect to find everything online. I have seen academic papers which cited nothing but online resources – sometimes to the detriment of the facts.
It’s not to say that there aren’t other advantages to electronic journals – certainly, the ability to search, index, and sort electronic resources is much more flexible than your options with print. The ability to access your sources without running around four different libraries has advantages. For low-vision researchers, the likelihood a computer may be able to read the article to you or magnify the text is much easier than finding an individual with the time to read an article to you. Still, the issue of permanence, when you cannot control the archive yourself, is a challenging question.
Personally, I will likely only purchase electronic books if the pricing model is cheaper than paper – otherwise, I’d far rather have the comparative security of ownership. Besides – I like a good, old-fashioned book!