Ebook Utopias

Earlier this week I fronted an annual meeting for faculty and departmental librarians on the topic of ebook use and developments here at Cambridge University. Ebooks administrator Jayne Kelly kicked the meeting off with an update (presentation on SlideShare), and was followed by Jack MacDonald of CUP, and various librarians describing the different ways they currently choose to select and fund ebooks.

As meeting host I decided that a discussion at the end of the event on ebook futures might be fun and came up with the angle of different groups formulating ‘ebook utopias’. Why? Well, because…
a) I’m VERY bored of talking about current ebook constraints and problems.
b) I could put together an attractive PPT easily.
c) I thought attendees would get behind the topic, cos its a bit of fun.

Prior to the discussion I was a little concerned that everyone would just say ‘any title, any device, anywhere’ because that’s essentially what our needs boil down to, but the groups, who were tasked to come up with 5 different component elements for their ebook utopias, came up with a good variety of ideas and angles that went beyond these basics, as follows:

Group 1

  1. Platform independence.
  2. No VAT!
  3. Prices agreed between publishers and librarians.
  4. All textbooks available.
  5. Download from anywhere.

Group 2

  1. Philanthropic benefactor  – gifting billions to sort ebooks out.
  2. Instant availability.
  3. Accessibility for all.
  4. Uniformity of design and use.
  5. Unlimited retro-digitisation.

Group 3

  1. Easy access via OPAC.
  2. Simpler/fewer platforms.
  3. Take advantage of different mediums.
  4. Maintaining contact with readers vital despite e-availability.
  5. More coverage.

Group 4

  1. All books ever published and to be published available as ebook (to academic libraries).
  2. No DRM.
  3. Accessible to everybody, including ‘disabled’.
  4. Accessible/downloadable to all devices, current and future.
  5. Easy online ordering from only very few suppliers.

Group 5

  1. 100% coverage.
  2. Open access model for books.
  3. One click access.
  4. One format.
  5. Smart interactivity.

Suggestions were also received before, during, and after the session on the Twitterbox, using the hashtag #ebkutopia. This was valuable as many other neat ideas were volunteered.

Quite deliberately there wasn’t time to explore the complexity of actually delivering or arriving at such utopias, as it was exactly that sort of detail that I was trying to avoid, but obviously utopian visions are by their very nature flawed. A great quote about seeking utopias from Christopher Hitchens runs as follows:

“The search for Nirvana, like the search for Utopia or the end of history or the classless society, is ultimately a futile and dangerous one. It involves, if it does not necessitate, the sleep of reason. There is no escape from anxiety and struggle.”

Ah well, at least it was half-an-hour of ebook positivity for a change!

Thanks to all the librarians who contributed in Cambridge and beyond, and to Sarah Burton for transcribing the flipchart sheets.


One thought on “Ebook Utopias

  1. Sarah Stamford (@Dymvue) says:

    It was a useful exercise, thanks for organising and writing it up afterwards.

    It reminded me of doing a similar thing on an ebook acquisition training day some time ago, when we had to imagine we were publishers deciding what our ideal licence terms for ebooks. I think it ended up with each ebook being limited to one user, accessible on one PC for an hour per day!

    I hope readers from the worlds of academic publishing appreciate this wasn’t an entirely serious discussion; although removing VAT on sales of ebooks to University libraries should be on someone’s agenda.


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