Finding e-books - a discovery to delivery problem
Some of you will know that we recently ran a quick survey of academic e-book usage in the UK - I hope to be able to report on the findings here shortly. One of the things that we didn't ask about in the survey but that has come up anecdotally in our discussions with librarians is the ease (or not) with which it is possible to find out if a particular e-book title is available.
A typical scenario goes like this. "Lecturer adds an entry for a physical book to a course reading list. Librarian checks the list and wants to know if there is an e-book edition of the book, in order to offer alternatives to the students on that course". Problemo. Having briefly asked around, it seems (somewhat surprisingly?) that there is no easy solution to this problem.
If we assume that the librarian in question knows the ISBN of the physical book, what can be done to try and ease the situation? Note that in asking this question I'm conveniently ignoring the looming, and potentially rather massive, issue around "what the hell is an e-book anyway?" and "how are we going to assign identifiers to them once we've worked out what they are?" :-). For some discussion around this see Eric Hellman's recent piece, What IS an eBook, anyway?
But, let's ignore that for now... we know that OCLC's xISBN service allows us to navigate different editions of the same book (I'm desperately trying not to drop into FRBR-speak here). Taking a quick look at the API documentation for xISBN yesterday, I noticed that the metadata returned for each ISBN can include both the fact that something is a 'Book' and that it is 'Digital' (form == 'BA' && form == 'DA') - that sounds like the working definition of an e-book to me (at least for the time being) - as well as listing the ISBNs for all the other editions/formats of the same book. So I knocked together a quick demonstrator. The result is e-Book Finder and you are welcome to have a play. To get you started, here are a couple of examples:
Of course, because e-Book Finder is based on xISBN, which is in turn based on WorldCat, you can only use it to find e-books that are listed in the catalogues of WorldCat member libraries (but I'm assuming that is a big enough set of libraries that the coverage is pretty good). Perhaps more importantly, it also only represents the first stage of the problem. It allows you to 'discover' that an e-book exists - but it doesn't get the thing 'delivered' to you.
Wouldn't it be nice if e-Book Finder could also answer questions like, "is this e-book covered by my existing institutional subscriptions?", "can I set up a new institutional subscription that would cover this e-book?" or simply "can I buy a one-off copy of this e-book?". It turns out that this is a pretty hard problem. My Licence Negotiation colleagues at Eduserv suggested doing some kind of search against myilibrary, dawsonera, Amazon, eBrary, eblib and SafariBooksOnline. The bad news is that (as far as I can tell), of those, only Amazon and SafariBooksOnline allow users to search their content before making them sign in and only Amazon offer an API. (I'm not sure why anyone would design a website that has the sole purpose of selling stuff such that people have to sign in before they can find out what is on offer, nor why that information isn't available in a openly machine-readable form but anyway...). So in this case, moving from discovery to delivery looks to be non-trivial. Shame. Even if each of these e-book 'aggregators' simply offered a list1 of the ISBNs of all the e-books they make available, it would be a step in the right direction.
On the other hand, maybe just pushing the question to the institutional OpenURL resolver would help answer these questions. Any suggestions for how things could be improved?1. It's a list so that means RSS or Atom, right?