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December 6, 2001

Supplier of e-books files for bankruptcy; Pitt access should continue, Miller says

The company that provides e-books to Pitt and thousands of other academic libraries, netLibrary, filed for bankruptcy protection last month.

But the director of Pitt's University Library System (ULS) says faculty, staff and students should retain access to the approximately 8,000 netLibrary books and monographs that they currently can read online through ULS's web site.

G. Rush Miller noted that the nonprofit library organization OCLC has offered to buy netLibrary's assets. Whether the purchase will go through is in the hands of a U.S. bankruptcy court.

"We're very hopeful that the purchase by OCLC will happen," said Miller, who serves on netLibrary's advisory board. "OCLC is very well-funded, and we have a lot of confidence that they can keep these online books available to us, in addition to developing a viable model for e-books in the future."

But whether or not OCLC buys netLibrary's assets, Pitt's contract with netLibrary specifies that if the company goes under, ULS and its partners in a state-wide libraries consortium will receive digital copies of the 8,000-some e-books they already have acquired, Miller said. "We would mount those digital copies on our server locally for our constituents," he explained.

"The only snag could be if some publishers make a legal case that their agreements with netLibrary are in conflict with the libraries' agreements, and so the libraries should not retain perpetual access to certain books," Miller said.

"But I'm not too worried about it," he added.

ULS has spent about $200,000 during the last several years to acquire e-books through netLibrary, Miller estimated.

Founded three years ago and based in Boulder, Col., netLibrary "was once widely seen as the most promising commercial effort to offer e-books to higher education," The Chronicle of Higher Education pointed out.

"One thing that worries me," Miller said, "is that everybody who has ventured into the e-book arena has now been pretty well bankrupted by it.

"I think the online book model is not yet viable. Part of it is that the public is not ready to sit and read books cover-to-cover on their computer screens."

For that reason, most of the e-books ULS purchased are reference works or how-to volumes, books that people tend to read in portions.

Since netLibrary's financial problems reached the crisis stage, the company has stopped sending ULS updates on e-book use by the Pitt community. Typically, though, the most popular e-books in ULS's collection would be accessed 200-300 times in a six-month period, Miller said.

"There's no doubt that digital books have a major future," he insisted. "It's just a matter of what technology is used. Using a portable e-book reader may be more viable than sitting at a computer, for example."

— Bruce Steele

Filed under: Feature,Volume 34 Issue 8

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