Free e-books online via University of Pittsburgh Press

The University of Pittsburgh Press has put nearly 500 out of print books online and Open Access. You can access them via their Digital Editions website.  This is excellent news, making work which could be lost openly available to all.

iversity of Pittsburgh Press Digital Editions - Open Access free ebooks
University of Pittsburgh Press Digital Editions - Open Access free ebooks

For years there has been a movement towards making Journal articles Open Access, i.e. publicly available. However some subjects (especially in the Humanities) publish much of their research in books, not journals. Letting the world gain from the (normally publicly funded) research contained within books is more complex, and it’s not an area I fully understand. The author normally receives royalties from book sales. However I understand this are normally very small 99% of the time, and normally tail down to tiny amounts after a few years. What if funders and Universities demanded that any book written with their money (or during their employment) must be made publicly available after x number of years (let’s say 10 years)? Academics and Publishers would not welcome the move, but would still allow a window where they can gain revenue, and if this became the norm it would be something they just have to accept. Meanwhile, once open access, the book becomes much easier to archive and preserve, and ensure the knowledge is available to all in the long term. Just a thought.

Back to the Pittsburgh Press website (created with the University Library), the Copyright remains with the Press and I note this somewhat restrictive quote at the bottom of their homepage: “This material is provided for scholarly, educational, and research use only.” In an ideal world they would be under a more liberal licence (creative commons for example), though I imagine this would lead to many legal complexities to resolve, and don’t want this to detract from the good work that has been done here. It’s a massive step to release these so that they are publicly available.

It occurs to me that this raises the question of ‘discovery’. Not as a criticism of this service, but as an example of the problems we face in fully utilising its existence.

How will our (a University Library) users find these books? I can think of two  situations: first, they are looking for a particular book (perhaps due a reference) and discovering the online version will be much quicker than trying to find any existing print copy in a Library around the world, second: when a book contained in this service will be relevant to their research – and they are searching (catalogues/Google) using keywords to find relevant material.

Should users find this when they search our catalogue, or when they search our online resources (using a federated search service)? With the next generation library search products appearing, should they be ‘discoverable’ within these systems, and if so, how?

The above focuses on how a library should add these items in to its systems, the other side of the coin is adding them to universal worldwide systems. I selected a particular book and searched Worldcat for the title, it shows the book twice in the search results, once for the paper version and once for the ebook at Pittsburgh, the latter linking to the free e-book. A Good start!

Searching Google for the same title, the Worldcat entry was the fifth link, so someone searching Google for this book would – if their attention span can extend to trying the fifth link – find the free online version via the Worldcat record. An even better situation would be for Google to link to the free book directly.

Some thoughts:

  • While the above is promising it relies on a user searching for the title of the book, which doesn’t cater for those who don’t know it exists, yet it’s content would be useful for their research.
  • Users are saying to us they want one place to search for sources of information and content useful for their work. They have to use many different systems and it can be confusing when to use which one, and each has their own interface and rules. The Library catalogue, VLE/e-learning platform, Web of Science, Wordcat, Scopus, Google, Federated (online resources) search, COPAC, etc. Which ones to use, and when? The ultimate aim of providing one search box is to highlight information (content) which could be useful – both that which the institution subscribes to, and that which is free. How will records of Open Access books such as these ‘get in to’ such a search index?  Each Library adding such content is not very efficient, better would be for it to be added in one place/database (along with similar items) which can be openly searched/harvested by other systems using an API. Libraries could then simply add such a service to their own search system to make the content available to users. DOAJ (a directory of Open Access Journals) answered a similar concern for Open Access Journals.

Content is useless unless people can discover it, and how will Libraries develop systems which help users to discover everything they can potentially access in such an easy way that it is intuitive and requires no specialist training?