Considering Librarians


Librarians are vital members of the research community and are uniquely placed to engage with both sides of the publishing equation: publishers and readers. Their role involves engaging with and supporting researchers, both faculty and students, who are accessing all kinds of materials through libraries. They’re also privy to the system of content delivery comprising publishers and aggregators and were thus able to offer valuable insight into the current landscape. In doing so, librarians expressed frustration with limitations of the current digital ecosystem, as it often adversely impacts readers, but in many cases librarians felt poorly-positioned to provide solutions to these problems.

Setting out, we had several hunches about current problems in the digital reading ecosystems in the library context, namely:

  • Unsatisfactory user experience for delivery of digital versions of monographs to readers
  • Digital Rights Management (DRM)/digital locks and usage restrictions, which make it hard for readers to get and use books as they wish
  • Closed-silo reading systems provided by distributors/aggregators, that restrict development of innovative tools for scholarly readers

These hunches were largely confirmed through our interviews, and interviewees shared their vision for what the future of scholarly reading could and should look like.

Print vs. Digital

The first issue we explored was how researcher preferences for digital or print are playing out in the current library landscape. The interviewees unanimously reported an entrenched preference among patrons for print when it comes to long-form texts, evident in everything from the ongoing popularity of printing, to requests to be able to filter catalogues by print availability. While search and discovery are acknowledged as having improved in a digital context, and the utility of “skimming” large sets of resources to get a broad/shallow understanding of a topic were noted, there was no question that researchers consider print the better option for deep reading.

While some of this is likely influenced by habit, particularly for established researchers, almost all the interviewees noted that it’s difficult to say whether the bias comes from something inherent to print, or if it is a response to the inadequacies of existing digital books and reading systems. In short, they are,

“not sure whether [the preference for print is] because paper is amazing, or whether it’s because the digital tools aren’t good enough”.

Publisher Tools and Digital Rights Management (DRM)

The issues cited with available tools were significant, starting with user experience. In the words of one librarian:

“The platforms are terrible. The user interface is bad. You get into a system, you have to click five or six times to get into it… [Once] you get into the system, even if you have a wide-screen monitor… the viewing of the content itself is limited to half the screen… It looks like it’s from the 90s. There’s limitations on printing, if you can print at all. The annotation is either non-existent or terrible, and it’s not hierarchical or smart in any way, and getting those annotations back out (because they have locked it down, because they view it… as a workaround to get the content out…) is near impossible and not functional. So you feel like you’re sort of looking at this thing through a digital glass box that you can’t touch or interact with.”

The proprietary publisher/aggregator content delivery model has also led to wide variations in what’s permitted on different texts, creating frustration for users, and for librarians who are left unable to effectively advise their patrons.

“We can’t encourage people to use things that are incredibly frustrating to use; they just won’t use them.”

Of particular importance in reflecting on user experiences of publisher/aggregator reading platforms is the fact that many of these limitations (on access, printing, and annotations, for example) are deliberately put in place due to fears of content being removed from their platform. These limitations exist under the umbrella of DRM, and our interview subjects unanimously named it the most frustrating feature of the current digital content ecosystem.

DRM is particularly counterintuitive for users when it comes single-seat or limited-seat licenses for digital content, where an artificial restriction placed on access removes one of the big advantages of digital over print. As one interviewee put it, “It’s actually a value decrease, except for the accessibility, not a value add in most cases, to the print [version].”

“The DRM. [The biggest issue] has to be the DRM… [print is] easy to understand. You walk into the stacks, and you look for a book and it’s not there, or you look in the catalogue, and it says this book is checked out until May 11th 2017, right? That’s easy to conceptualize. You can recall books from people, but when you find it in digital format, and you’re thinking digital? That should be limitless and it’s not. It says the book is checked out, and it’s not clear whether it’s checked out for an hour or for a month, or do I just keep checking back? There’s no way to get notification when you’ve been accessing. I think that is the biggest frustration from a direct user perspective.”

In addition, in the case of aggregators, the most cautious publishers dictate what happens for all content in a platform, holding back others who may be more willing to allow certain features:

“When ebooks first arrived in libraries, there was a lot of hand wringing from the publishers, and they really wanted to restrict how much you could do anything with them. So the model that has survived for that is this aggregated platform, where a vendor has created a platform to host ebooks on for libraries… And because that vendor is having to work with so many different publishers with so many different levels of risk that they’re willing to take, they end up going with the lowest common denominator.”

Scholarly Reading Practices

At the core of librarians’ frustration with the current system—poor tools, publisher variation and DRM—is the simple fact that existing digital reading systems do not support the kind of reading researchers are actually doing. A consistent theme from our interviewees was the idea that digital books—ebooks in particular—were only useful for the kind of linear reading associated with novels or other non-academic texts.

The issue when it comes to scholarly reading is that it is a much more dynamic, active, and interactive process that is simply not supported by existing platforms.

“If you’re not just sitting there with your Kindle on an airplane, reading cover to cover, not stopping, not making notes, maybe occasionally stopping to highlight something… but not really interacting with the text… That’s not how you work with scholarly books. You really need to interact with the text a lot…”

Scholarly reading involves not only making annotations, underlining, highlighting, and adding other marginalia, but also being able to flip back and forward within a text, or break it apart, comparing and rearranging pages and sections. All of these actions, while possible with print, are either limited or non-existent when working with texts restricted by DRM in various forms. Several interviewees said the kinds of actions they take for granted in print might be made possible, and even improved, with digital texts:

“I would like to be able to take different sections of the book and lay them all out so that I can reference between the pieces. Just replicating the whole idea of being able to flip back and forth between pages pretty seamlessly. To be able to leave marginalia for myself that I could read later on, which is a problem if it’s a library book because you return the electronic copy, and all of your notes are gone too, so something that I could retain from usage to usage.”

“I think smart annotations that allow you to replicate things like indexing and tagging, and commenting, and highlighting. All of the things that we can physically do with the text and maybe envisioning more things. But annotation is not a simple experience. We can mark pages and so I think there’s that, but there’s also that ability to then take that and do something with it.”

Beyond existing reader actions, one of our interviewees also posited that as other kinds of reading become more interactive and readers’ ways of consuming texts change across the board, scholarly reader preferences are shifting in a similar direction, reiterating the need for innovative approaches to digital reading in the academic context.

Another added to this developing idea of scholarly reading by sharing the concept of a text as a dataset, on and from which a reader/researcher can extract data, annotate, layer, compare, and contrast and analyze.

“I think if you’re looking at text as a dataset, it’s about, ‘How do you visualize? How do you enable an integration for visualization or re-combination?’… This is how I read, and the digital environment doesn’t allow me to underline and tag and mark up, and then also export text into a note tool or any of those things.”

Possibilities for the Future

Increasingly, as the availability of content at scale becomes the norm, the value lies in the experience of accessing that content. As those on the front lines of providing that experience, librarians can see that the current system of providing digital texts through proprietary publisher and aggregator platforms is not delivering what their patrons want and need.

The tools, with their embedded restrictions and limited features, are unable to deliver a useful reading experience for scholars, to the extent that digital reading is viewed as vastly less desirable and effective than print. This is disappointing, considering the innovations that digital technologies have offered in other areas of the scholarly publishing ecosystem, and should not be taken as the result of something inherent to digital reading. The digital environment can be dynamic, flexible, and connected, not siloed and restricted, and so too could digital scholarly reading.

Ultimately, the biggest barrier to improvement that librarians identify is publisher restrictions and DRM that not only limit access to and interaction with a single text, but also put walls between platforms, texts, and tools that might otherwise work together to serve readers’ needs.

Any future innovations must move past this paradigm in order to be able to offer true value to readers. Tools and formats should be interoperable and agnostic to accommodate the full range of activities involved in scholarly work, and the librarians interviewed seem poised and ready to embrace such a change. They share our belief that academia is an ideal environment to pursue this kind of approach, and that once the value proposition is undeniable, scholars are poised for a big shift in their content consumption.


The overall impression from the interviews with librarians is that there is a clear need not being met for scholarly readers. Our hunch around unsatisfactory user experiences with existing reading tools was confirmed, as was our expectation that DRM and usage restrictions are an ongoing source of frustration, limiting user interaction within texts. While we didn’t dive deeply into the issue of closed-silo reading systems, our general impression from librarian experience is that publishers and commercial aggregators are not likely to be the source of new, innovative approaches to digital reading.

These interviews have also confirmed that libraries are not only enthusiastic about the possible emergence of  alternative tools for digital reading, but they are ideally placed, and indeed critical, to supporting their development and adoption.


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An Open Approach to Scholarly Reading and Knowledge Management Copyright © 2018 by The Rebus Foundation is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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