The Evolution of the Reference EBook

At ALA Annual in Anaheim ABC-CLIO hosted focus groups for academic reference librarians to discuss the changing face of electronic reference books and hear what they had to say about what they hoped to see for the future of these products.

Here are the items we discussed and the general feedback we received. We encourage all readers of the No Shelf Required blog to post comments or questions – we want to hear what you have to say too!

Is print reference still viable?
It was generally agreed that print reference is still viable. Whether or not the librarian would purchase the print version depended upon the subject of the title and if their budget prohibited purchasing the electronic version. However, nearly half of the 20 attendees said they are no longer buying print reference at all.

What comes first, the book or the eBook?
As stated above, most answered that they would purchase the eBook and not the print, so the question for them was moot. Others stated that they would be inclined to purchase an eBook version of a title prior to the release of a completed print version if subsquent updates were provided and the final print version would be available within 12 — 24 months.  The original release of the eBook version would have less content than the print, but both versions would be identical by the time of print publication.

Important Features

  • Unlimited simultaneous usage & remote access
  • Export to citation programs
  • NO plug-ins
  • Open to Google and federated searching — access to all eBook platforms through one search engine


  • Make ordering easier by offering eBooks via the usual print distributors

Purchase vs. Subscribe

  • The group was split on this, and said it depends on the type of title. Purchase is typically better than subscription when it is a title that would be kept over the long term


  • Inter Library Loan (ILL): The librarians wanted flexibility to provide copies of chapters and entries requested from cooperating libraries and they were clear that they did not mean to offer access to an eBook.  When ILL authorization is requested for electronic content, the publishers have assumed the library would be lending the entire book. We would suggest librarians contact publishers directly when negotiating licensing and elaborate on how they would use the content for their ILL program. As a result of this discussion, ABC-CLIO is looking to clarify that such copying/scanning and forwarding of specific chapters or articles is allowed for research purposes at the requesting institution, but that providing access to the entire text is not allowed
  • Governing Law: The librarians recommended removing the Governing Law section from agreements when the publisher and library are in different states.  Both publishers and state institutions generally do not accept governing law being from a different state in which they operate.  It was felt that in the unlikely event of a contract or licensing conflict that the governing law would be determined at that time.  In the end, taking such a clause out speeds up the license process

Additional items

  • Platform changes — the consensus recommendation to publishers was to announce and launch major platform changes only in the summer months, with some acceptance for changes between semesters.  However, it was pointed out that the semester breaks varied widely, so summer was indeed the only good time
  • DISCOVERABILITY — participants requested that publishers help students find the eBook titles through various sources, especially Google and Google Books

We’d like to hear from you!

  • Archiving — if eBooks are continually updated, is there a need to maintain a “snapshot” of what that title once was at a specific time?
  • Host platform functionality is deemed very important. How can publishers help you evaluate the different platforms available quickly and effectively?  Is this a role for this blog?

Thank you to those librarians who participated in our focus groups. We were so grateful to have had such interactive and engaging attendees who gave us an abundance of suggestions for how ABC-CLIO and all e-reference providers can improve our programs. We look forward to reading your comments and questions! Best wishes, Devon Bell and your team at ABC-CLIO 800-368-6868 ext. 303

2 thoughts on “The Evolution of the Reference EBook”

  1. Sue, thank you for your comments.
    Our attendees were purely academic librarians since the majority of our eBook customers are from 2 year and 4 year institutions. We too heard the need for more flexible pricing for the smaller institutions. ABC-CLIO has tried it’s best to meet this need by offering FTE based pricing for our eBooks as well as special pricing for K-12 schools.

    Print-on-demand was also a topic discussed in our groups, although briefly. In one of our groups it was suggested not eliminating the print run altogether, but shortening it and offering the title via POD much sooner. It will be interesting to see what happens.

    What does everyone else think?

  2. Devon, It’s really nice to see this feedback from librarians. What type of librarians were in your focus group? Did you have any K-12 librarians? In our Monday ALA session we heard from several school librarians the need for more creative pricing – beyond the own or subscribe options – to allow for ebooks to be more affordable to schools.

    We also heard in our session, several times, the phrase “birthed online” in reference to the future of reference materials. I wonder if publishers will move to a print on demand only model at some point when e-reference becomes more popular.

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