This week, it was exactly one year ago that the library – like so many other locations – had to close up more or less overnight. “This applied to our study areas and the loans desk, but also to ESSB’s study section and the ISS library,” remembers Haandrikman. She is faculty liaison, in which role she serves as the link between the two faculties and the UL. Her portfolio includes the International Institute for Social Studies (ISS) in The Hague and Erasmus School of Social and Behavioural Studies (ESSB).
‘Book doesn’t leave the building’
In problem-based degree programmes like Law and the Social Sciences, students commonly don’t have to buy all their own textbooks. They consult them in their faculty’s study landscape. “Sometimes all they need to do is photocopy a few pages; sometimes they finish their assignment on the spot. At any rate, the book doesn’t leave the building.” But then, the study landscape was suddenly closed until further notice.
“We checked whether we could buy digital versions of specific books – which is more complicated than you may assume. It’s a very different story for universities than it is for consumers. To start, it’s a lot more expensive for us: the e-book version of a reference work that normally costs 80 euros can quickly run up to as much as 250. And even then, in many cases it may only be read by one to three users.”
Haandrikman needs to estimate beforehand what kind of licence is in order. “My rule of thumb is that when you have a group of 30 students, the licence has to allow at least 5 people to access the same book at the same time. That means that students need to coordinate with each other when they intend to read the book in question.”
What’s more, in some cases the licence terms aren’t immediately clear. “It’s relatively straightforward with major publishers like Cambridge and Oxford, but in the case of Dutch publishers, the licence terms often aren’t listed in the system. Which means you have to get in touch with them to find out. This was a particular issue for Erasmus School of Law: this faculty almost exclusively relies on Dutch textbooks. And the same applied to a lesser degree for the Psychology programmes.”
Another factor that came into play is that EUR does not want licences to be restricted to students enrolled in specific courses. “As the University Library, we serve the entire university community, which means that every student should be able to access every publication in our collection. Some licences became very expensive as a result.”
Some books aren’t even available as e-books, meaning universities can’t even procure a legal copy. “One of our lecturers had included his own book in the course literature. He had no idea how he could make it available in digital form. We examined all possible legal solutions – sharing his personal manuscript, for instance – but no luck. Ultimately, the lecturer was able to convince the publisher to make a digital version available: he mentioned that he was working on a new book and was considering publishing it with them again. They suddenly became a lot more amenable.”
Haandrikman was vexed by the many complications surrounding e-books. “The only thing you can do is make it clear to faculties how complicated it can be, and how expensive. In 2020, we ultimately spend an extra 300,000 euros in licences and Open Access vouchers, that’s around 6 per cent of our total budget. Prices can occasionally be very steep. “I’ve paid thousands of euros for one year of access to a single reference work for five users. Sometimes, you have to do a lot of hard negotiating.”
Occasionally, publishers also offered books, journals and newspapers free of charge. “Particularly in the beginning, this happened quite often. Cambridge, for example, did this with their academic reference works. Sage offered access to a smaller selection, and arranged special free access for us to a specific e-book for the duration of the course. Publishers generally started to become less generous after June or so.” All in all, some 200 to 300 collections were temporarily offered free of charge or at a discount in this period, according to Haandrikman.
In Cambridge’s case, the EUR community took up the publisher’s offer a bit too eagerly. “People immediately started downloading a huge mass of books,” says Haandrikman. “More than humanly possible, at which point it’s in breach of the terms.” She doesn’t know whether these mass downloads ended up in illegal circulation, but ‘it’s definitely possible’. Whatever the case, these illicit downloaders spoiled it for everyone else: in response, Cambridge temporarily retracted its courtesy offer.