occamInterlibrary loan (ILL) is a longstanding practice whereby libraries supplement their own collection holdings by borrowing books from other libraries on behalf of their patrons. During the print era, this was a slow and arduous process that relied on the postal service, required lots of paperwork, and made patrons wait — often for weeks. The online environment creates the possibility of sharing between libraries in much more streamlined (even instantaneous) ways and also raises the possibility of processes that would obviate the whole concept of sharing between libraries: patron-driven acquisition, publisher-provided short-term loan, and other emerging models offer alternatives to the traditional idea of one library sharing its access to a book with another. And then, of course, there’s the fact that with ebooks, libraries are often negotiating licensed access rather than buying a “copy” of the book in the traditional sense — a fact that greatly complicates the “first sale” doctrine that lies at the heart of many library services (including ILL).

Into this welter of new complexity steps the Greater Western Library Alliance (GWLA), Springer Verlag, and two university libraries with a very interesting new tool that proposes to blend the advantages of immediate online access with the first-sale-friendly model of traditional ILL. I interviewed four of the people responsible for the development of this new tool, which has charmingly been named Occam’s Reader: Joni Blake (Executive Director, GWLA), Ryan Litsey and Kenny Ketner (Texas Tech University), and Naomi Chow (University of Hawai’i at Mānoa).

Can you explain to us what led to the creation of Occam’s Reader? What problem (or problems) is it meant to solve?

The idea for Occam’s Reader (OR) began during a joint meeting of GWLA’s Resource Sharing/Document Delivery and Collection Development Committees in May of 2011. There was a robust discussion about the current and growing tension within libraries, where collection development staff are purchasing an increasing amount of e-only content with restrictive licensing and the interlibrary loan staff are finding it increasingly difficult to find newer works in a print format so they can be lent to other libraries. We wanted to figure out what libraries can do to make the ebooks we are continuing to collect available for use via ILL.

Ryan Litsey proposed the formation of a task force to look into the development of a system to lend ebooks between institutions. The task force is divided into three parts: Licensing and Contracts, Discoverability, and Technology Development to lend such items. Ryan Litsey and Kenny Ketner at Texas Tech, along with Naomi Chow, Arthur Shum, Erin Kim and Wing Leung at the University of Hawai’i at Mānoa, spearheaded the technical development.

The name Occam’s Reader stems from a discussion Ryan Litsey and Kenny Ketner had during the early phases of software development. The root idea of Occam’s Razor suggests that “all things being equal, the simplest explanation is the best”. From that idea Kenny and Ryan asked themselves what is the easiest method we can develop for lending ebooks through ILL — thus the name Occam’s Reader.

How was Occam’s Reader developed, and how is it going to be managed?

Occam’s Reader development can be divided into two parts.  The first is the main librarian interface and the ILLiad add-on designed by Ryan Litsey and Kenny Ketner. The librarian interface is the part of the system that initiates the conversion of the ebook from the version in the secured database into a file that can be sent to the Occam’s Reader server. Once that file is on the server, the system will automatically generate an email that is sent to the borrowing institution with a URL for the server and the login credentials.

The second part of the development was handled by Chow, Shum, Kim and Leung at the University of Hawai’i. This portion is the online viewer interface that the patron uses to view the eBook that resides in the Occam’s Reader server.  The viewer gives the patron the ability to jump to the desired page as well as zoom in and zoom out.

The Occam’s Reader development team will continue to managing things throughout the pilot project.

How will library patrons experience this service? When they get a response to their ILL request, what will it look like to them and what will they be able to do with what they receive?

The patron experience is provided by the online viewer. For the patron, the process is simple: once the book has been processed by the Occam’s Reader system and sent to the server, an email goes to the borrowing library. The borrowing library then forwards that email to the patron. The email contains the patron credentials to access the requested item on the server. Once they log in they will be presented with the viewer interface to the book.

A demo of the viewer interface can be seen at http://occamsreader.org

Springer is known for its liberal ILL and reuse policies regarding ebooks, so that publisher is clearly a good fit for this pilot project. What do you think will make the model attractive to other publishers?

GWLA has always worked to negotiate license and contract terms that are friendly to the use of emerging ILL technology in order to leverage the use of these e-resources among the GWLA member libraries.  Consequently, we have some leeway within our existing licenses to use a technology like the Occam’s Reader system. We very much appreciate Springer’s forward thinking, and we feel that after this pilot many other publishers will see the benefits of Occam’s Reader. Some of the benefits to the publishers include:

  • We are able to furnish publishers with better circulation statistics than they currently get from third party viewer vendors.
  • Via Occam’s Reader, a larger pool of new potential users will have access to the publisher’s content.
  • The system transmits simple files to discourage piracy and bulk printing.
  • Occam’s Reader provides a path to the long-accepted model of ILL while still offering local patrons unique and superior content through a Springer license.

What has been the response so far from librarians? I imagine that some will see this as a welcome step in the right direction, while others will see it as a model that fails to take advantage of the possibilities offered by ebook formats.

So far the response has been almost entirely positive. Libraries recognize the importance of ebooks and also understand that it is impossible to collect everything that might be of interest to our patrons. ILL has long played a critical role in academic libraries by providing researchers access to the resources they need when they need them, even if they are owned by a distant library.

As academic libraries invest more heavily in ebook content, more and more their collections become inaccessible to the traditional models of ILL. It was just a matter of time before academic libraries took the steps to move the conversation about sustainable management and use of ebooks forward.

There have been a few questions about accessibility and readability for visually impaired patrons. Currently we do not have that functionality, but we will be adding it to our development list as we go forward.

It has always seemed to me that there’s an interesting tension between the tradition of first-sale rights under copyright law and the fact that with ebooks, you’re generally not buying a copy at all but instead licensing a right of access. Can you comment on how Occam’s Reader addresses that tension?

Occam’s Reader exists at the nexus of these two tensions. The first area of tension is in regards to the licenses. In negotiations with publishers, GWLA has worked hard to ensure that the licenses signed by its members include language that specifically allows for the ILL of electronic items using cutting-edge technology. This means that during Occam’s Reader’s development we already had clauses in our contracts that would allow us to ILL the content during the testing and deployment phases of the system’s development.

The second tension concerns first sale doctrine and copyright. There has been a lot of talk lately in academic libraries about ebooks and the first sale doctrine. We believe that the lack of first sale coverage for ebooks is a practical matter rather than a theoretical issue. However, without a viable alternative model that demonstrates exactly how the lack of first sale coverage is a real-world issue, libraries have not had a need to confront such an important shift in the role of ebooks in the academic library. The increased use of the Occam’s Reader system of loaning ebooks through ILL will demonstrate the practical importance of the first sale doctrine with ebooks.

What are the next steps for this project?

The next steps for the project are as follows:

  • Deploy and test the Occam’s Reader system with the GWLA pilot
  • Improve documentation and installation guides for Occam’s Reader Pilot GWLA test group
  • Prioritized programming goals:
    • Add options to enforce lending policies:
      • Track the number of local users
      • Set a maximum number of ILL users
      • Limit number of checkouts per item
    • Add watermark capability
    • Support for ePub format
  • Further develop the potential to offer a recommend for purchase option after the item has been used via ILL
  • Incorporate usability surveys into both viewer and patron email

For further information you can contact:

www.occamsreader.org                                libraries.occams.reader@ttu.edu

Ryan Litsey, Project Manager, Texas Tech University (Ryan.litsey@ttu.edu)

Naomi Chow, Web Viewer Project Manager, University of Hawai’i at Mānoa (nchow@hawaii.edu)

Joni Blake, Executive Director, Greater Western Library Alliance (joni@gwla.org)

Rick Anderson

Rick Anderson

Rick Anderson is University Librarian at Brigham Young University. He has worked previously as a bibliographer for YBP, Inc., as Head Acquisitions Librarian for the University of North Carolina, Greensboro, as Director of Resource Acquisition at the University of Nevada, Reno, and as Associate Dean for Collections & Scholarly Communication at the University of Utah.


10 Thoughts on "Occam's Reader: An Interview"

In looking at the demo, it seems to me that they’ve thrown the baby out with the bathwater. Most of the advantages of the eBook over the pBook are absent. Speed of access is all that’s left. And we wonder why students are reported as favoring pBooks over eBooks.

The design of the Occam’s Reader software was very deliberate. The point is to give the simplest reading experience, not a deluxe reading experience. This is a compromise between GWLA and Springer. After all, Springer is allowing an entire eBook to be read by a patron of a library that does not license the eBook. If Occam’s Reader was the equivalent of a kindle, nook, or iPad reading experience, it would have been very difficult for Springer to have approved this trial. We hope the trial will result in steady or increasing eBook sales among the participants. Expect to hear more about our shared evaluation next year.

Sounds like the so-called “freemium” model of OA. Make bare bones content free then sell the upgrade as a premium.

Base on what I have read about Occam’s Reader, one can’t print or save anything. As a faculty member and researcher I find that totally unacceptable. We are back in era of having to make notes by hand. More like Occam’s Razor, leaving the poor researcher cut and bleeding!

One of the nice things about Occam’s Reader is that while it adds options, it doesn’t take any away. A library that uses it can still do traditional ILL as well. So the researcher is no worse off than he or she was before — in fact s/he is better off, because there will be additional access to more books. (The additional access may be imperfect, but it still represents a net gain.) This is one of many areas in which we need to be careful not to let the perfect be the enemy of the good.

Rick, I have thought about this a while. It may offer a new, if convenient option. The rub is that what I typically copy or print is a few pages here and there, maybe a chapter, but within fair use guidelines. Even more than the inconvenience, I object to a system that is designed to preclude fair use.

But again, it’s important to bear in mind that OR has not in any way reduced your ability to do those things. It has only given you new options that you didn’t have before. If you want to wait for your library to get a physical copy of the book through the mail or get a photocopied chapter via email, the way you always did, those options are still available to you. The difference now is that, in addition to those choices, you can get immediate access (albeit through a mechanism that structurally limits what you can do with the content). If you don’t like that option, well, good news — all the old options are still available. Since it takes nothing away from what existed before, there’s really no two ways around the fact that OR represents a net gain in both access and convenience.

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