Reflections on the Springer Book Archives and its role at the University of Melbourne
As part of a series looking at the impact of Springer Book Archives on academic libraries since its launch in 2013, we’ve been talking to a number of institutions who’ve had access to SBA collections for several years. We’ve been asking library directors across the globe how digital book archives are being used and applied in current research, what kind of usage trends are emerging and how that data is being used by the library to improve the institutional research experience.
In 2014 we interviewed Philip Kent - then Librarian at the University of Melbourne - who instigated the institution’s first large-scale eBook archive purchase as part of a drive for institutional innovation and to ‘redress gaps in past acquisitions’. Kent has recently published a paper in the Journal ‘Collection Building’: ‘Measuring the Impact: Springer Books Archives at Melbourne’ which looks at the benefits SBA has delivered to the institution and assesses the long term value of the purchase.
Now Library Director at the University of Bristol, Philip Kent recently spoke to us about some of the reasons behind the University of Melbourne’s SBA purchase in 2013. We asked him about the role eBook archive collections play at the institution today and what he thinks about the continued relevance of these collections on academic research as we move further into the 21st century.
What were the biggest motivations for the University of Melbourne purchasing SBA back in 2013?
As a member of the Springer Advisory Board and someone with an active interest in academic technology and content development, I was intrigued by the Springer Book Archive project from an early stage. I was keen to understand how Springer (now Springer Nature) was managing and implementing such a large-scale, complex digitisation initiative, so I followed the project’s development closely.
Until around the time of the SBA launch, the library and its staff had generally been more focused on journal content. But we were starting to take a more active interest in the role of eBooks and, in particular, how digitised book archive collections could benefit the library and the institution as a whole. At the time of the SBA purchase the massification of information was really starting to impact academic research, so our ability to provide access to over 100,000 heritage eBooks was an important contribution to the deeper sources of content now expected by our researchers.
The university only had around a third of Springer backfile titles in print before it invested in SBA, so this was a significant purchase because it meant we could give our researchers, faculty and students ongoing access to a much fuller collection of titles than before.
Did the SBA purchase free up more library space?
There was always a need to create more library space at the university, although limited storage was more of a problem for Arts & Humanities and Social Sciences than it was for the Medical and Science faculties. SBA didn’t open up the volume of space we thought it might when we first bought the collections and there were a couple of reasons for this. The first is that it’s labour intensive to move books off site and we didn’t have the staff or the resources to invest in a project of this scale at the time. Secondly, the removal of books doesn’t always translate into large amounts of open space. Journals are a completely different scenario - if we take out a 100-year collection of journals we can immediately free up a lot of space in a single location. By contrast, creating space by removing book titles is slower and less efficient to achieve. That said, the integration of tens of thousands of eBooks with existing collections led to greater discoverability of many titles and increased usage as a consequence.
Who are the biggest users of the SBA?
Our data did not provide this level of granularity. Anecdotal feedback suggests that post-grad students and academics are the heaviest users of the SBA at the University of Melbourne. Undergraduates in medical and science disciplines tend to rely more on textbooks. Conversely, we were surprised by the usage of arts and humanities titles in the collection. Advice from academics proposed that this was linked to projects by post-graduate students in the arts.
Was it difficult for the library to build exposure for SBA after purchase?
We didn’t really need to do much promotional work for SBA. One of the real positives in obtaining an archive collection like this is that it’s more of an integration than a distinct ‘bolt-on’ to existing collections. We were essentially replacing or supplementing many titles we already owned with electronic versions. Titles that we didn’t previously own were integrated into existing collections which meant that these collections simply expanded and didn’t have to be heavily signposted. The result was that usage of the titles grew organically - faculty and researchers stumbled across new titles and expanded collections as part of the same searches they had always performed. Because we weren’t adding a discrete collection to the library, the SBA content was immediately as discoverable as all the other collections, which was a big benefit.
Was there anything that surprised you about SBA usage trends?
Some of the much older print titles at the university were in pretty bad condition and for me, it was really important to be able to offer perpetual access to fully preserved versions of the original titles before they became too damaged. Interestingly though, I had assumed that the digitised versions of some of the more renowned older titles would be much more in demand than they turned out to be. Usage of Einstein titles, for example, was relatively low in the period 2013-16 which isn’t what I would have predicted. Ultimately, knowledge builds on knowledge and from what I observed, researchers were generally using more contemporary texts as the basis for their research. But although some of the archive titles weren’t used in the way that I’d expected, I still think it’s really important to maintain perpetual access to these texts as an insurance - at some point, someone will need to access them.
How do you view the University of Melbourne’s purchase of SBA today based on the data it generated?
Data from SBA gave us greater insight into how worthwhile the investment was. Purchasing the Springer Book Archive was definitely the right move for the University of Melbourne in 2013. It’s always difficult to calculate an exact return on investment but I think the cost of the collection has already been returned in usage, so any additional use is really the icing on the cake.
How do you see the future of print vs online?
This can be difficult to predict, and trends can fluctuate unexpectedly. Worldwide, the use of eBooks had overtaken print in 2015, but this trend later reversed, with print overtaking digital again. Based on my observations, I would say that library print and ebook collections will reach equilibrium earlier than 2020, as predicted by ALIA (Australian Library and Information Association).
How do you see the role of SBA at universities like Melbourne over the next 10 years?
Interaction with digital book archives could change quite a bit over the next 10 years. It’s possible that SBA usage could continue to slow down at the University of Melbourne as it has recently, but I think any risk associated with the investment is low. Shelf space costs inevitably reduce over time as a result of investing in a collection like SBA and perpetual access to this content is a strong insurance policy for the university. Ultimately, you just can’t predict the impact that even really old content could have on future research. There are titles that could re-emerge as hugely significant in future discoveries and this is something that shouldn’t be overlooked.