Barbara Opar and Lucy Campbell, column editors

Column by Barbara Opar, Syracuse University Libraries

Love them or lump them? How do you feel about e-books in architectural libraries? VOTE HERE

Odds are some of you have reservations. But let’s take another look at the e-book in the academic architecture library.  E-books have been part of library collections for almost two decades, but in many quarters there is still confusion about them. Librarians in arts-related disciplines are sometimes reluctant to select e-only content. Will the user be able to access the title easily? Will they stop coming into the library? Users are troubled by the inherent inconsistency. But for good or bad, e-books are here to stay. In most arts libraries, we will continue to live in a parallel universe and the physical book will be purchased and used alongside the e-format. However, strides have been made in e-book production and we must look to the benefits of 24/7 accessibility while reminding ourselves of the inconsistencies across platforms.

E-book has become an umbrella term and is often applied to the contents of any book accessible in electronic form. In academic libraries, e-text is a more appropriate term. Students and faculty today do not routinely use devices like the Kindle or Nook to access materials provided by their institutions.

The e-text revolution began with Project Gutenberg in 1971. The often told tale has Michael Hart keying the text of the Declaration of Independence into a mainframe computer at the University of Illinois. Hart’s initial vision was to create a library of 10,000 public domain titles. That goal was reached in 2003. As time passed, Hart turned to different delivery options like Adobe Acrobat. The concept of the e-text changed too.  Initial collaborative efforts of an altruistic nature were overshadowed by commercial ventures.

It is, however, these commercial ventures which have made the difference in the number and expanded selection of architectural titles available to libraries. While librarians have chosen and will continue to add individual e-book titles to the collections for which they are responsible, the enhanced access to e-content has largely come through commercial vendor packages. Humanities oriented and science related vendors have created packages of e titles available to libraries on a subscription or purchase basis. The cost of subscriptions varies and is determined by a number of factors including consortial arrangements, FTE, and even the number of other vendor products held by the institution. The cost of purchase can often be spread out over several years. Most often large packages are held for ‘end of year’ fund availability.

For libraries then, one benefit is the ease of purchase. They are able to add extensive content without individual selection. Cost per title is also under market. A library without strong holdings with respect to sustainability can quickly build a collection.

Who are the vendors? JSTOR, one of the strongest humanities e-journal content providers, has added books to its holdings. Like their e-journal content, the text is high resolution, displays well, and the platform is easy to use. The fields of architectural, landscape and planning history are well represented. Architectural guidebooks, studies of masterworks, and monographs on architects make up the majority of content A few titles from the 1970s are included, with the bulk of the texts having imprints from the last decade. Titles include:  AIA Guide to Chicago (2014), American Architects and their Books 1840-1915 (2007), Creating Medieval Cairo (2008), Design after Decline: How America Rebuilds Shrinking Cities (2012), Hijacking Sustainability (2009), Hitler’s Berlin: Abused City (2012), and Making Suburbia: New Histories of Everyday America (2015).

Similar content is available from the ACLS Humanities site sponsored by the American Council of Learned Societies and the University of Michigan Library. Alberto Perez Gomez’ Architecture and the Crisis of Modern Science (1983), FLO, a Biography of Frederick Law Olmsted (1983) and The Horace’s Villa Project (2006) are some of the titles included in this package.  A table of contents allows for easy selection of content. Book reviews are included.

Another e-content provider is Ebrary. Constructing a New Agenda: Architectural Theory, 1993-2010 (2010) by A. Krista Sykes, and Harry Francis Mallgrave’s important anthology- Architectural Theory: An Anthology from Vitruvius to 1870 (2005) are hosted here. But Ebrary also includes the 11th edition of Architectural Graphic Standards. This collection then contains titles core to the discipline. The titles are available for download or online reading. The number of simultaneous users is often limited and capped by the vendor.

An especially well-rounded collection of architecture titles comes from EBSCO. EBSCO’s content spans the entire field of architecture and its related bodies of knowledge. The collection is rich in design related resources like Designing Interior Architecture: Concept, Typology, Material, Construction (2013), Digital Workflows in Architecture: Design-Assembly-Industry (2012) and Solar Architecture: Strategies, Visions, Concepts (2012).  The Sociology of Architecture: Constructing Identities (2011) and The Globalization of Modern Architecture: The Impact of Politics, Economics, and Social Change on Architecture and Urban Design since 1990 (2012) are among those works dealing with architecture and society. But theory and history have not been left out. The Possibility of an Absolute Architecture, Pier Vittorio Aureli’s important work from 2011 and Alan Colquhoun’s Modern Architecture (2002) are included in this database of significant and sought after works.

There are also any number of publisher collections which focus on specific aspects of the discipline. Early American Imprints, Early English Books Online, Early European Books and Eighteenth Century Collections provide access to an extensive corpus of architectural treatises and pattern books.

Books 24/7, Credo Reference and Sage Knowledge are among other sources of e-content. Books 24/7 has rich content with respect to all aspects of sustainability. Credo Reference includes titles like 100 Ideas that Changed Architecture. Sage Knowledge is an important provider of sociological content. For engineering related resources, Knovel and Springer are key content providers. A recent Springer addition is Architectural Design: Conception and Specification of Interactive Systems (2016)

So solid architectural content is definitely available online. Are there downsides? Yes, as with   any technology. Content display varies among vendors. The ability to go back and forth between individual chapters is difficult. Downloading issues exist. Limits on printing are problematic and vary across vendor platforms. In some packages, books are actually checked out. Until recently, many e-books were published well after the print title, necessitating either a waiting period or duplication of content. This is however changing and more titles are coming out simultaneously in print and e version.

E-books will only grow in importance. The benefits?  24/7 access as has been noted. The ability to easily provide multiple copies of a title is key for libraries. Faculty can also embed content links in course management software such as Blackboard.

But it is the strong content that should be the deciding factor. If a library has a number of packages as outlined above they can truly support distance education. Course reserves become easier to both process and access. For many courses or research topics, the patron can do most of their library work at anytime and anywhere. But remember that it is the library that makes all of this possible.