Purchase or Lease?

Options for School Library eBook Acquisition

Libraries are on the front lines of the shift to digital content in schools. Just as schools and districts are rethinking how they deliver curriculum, increasing demand for digital content impacts the composition of the library collection as well. Librarians and media specialists must determine the best mix of print and digital content and other resources for their school as they respond to the curriculum needs of the new Common Core Standards and develop a cost-effective eBook acquisition strategy.

Publishers are still experimenting with how to sell eBooks to libraries. In fact, several of the largest trade publishers are currently not selling eBooks to libraries at all. Another is charging three times the price of a print copy for one copy of an eBook. Basing the replacement cost of an eBook on a certain number of rentals is being considered by yet another of the big publishers. After the specified number of rentals is reached, the library would need to purchase another copy. Pricing eBooks higher than print books means that school libraries will have hard choices to make about which eBooks to add to their collections.

At the heart of this experimentation is the concern, on the part of authors and publishers, about illegal pirating and their need to protect their intellectual property. The lack of available data to project usage is also a complicating factor for determining a reasonable pricing model in this quickly developing market. As a result, embedded Digital Rights Management (DRM) restricts eBook use. Content licenses are often leased rather than purchased, depending on the vendor. Understanding the terms of eBook acquisition is critical to establishing a cost-effective acquisition plan.

There are new and different purchasing issues with eBooks than there are with print books. Traditionally, a print book that was purchased for a school library was owned by the library. The library would keep it in circulation as long as possible and replace it if it wore out. In this model, there is no question about who owns the physical book; however, the ownership of an eBook is more ambiguous. And this is the big question that all libraries are grappling with. Who owns the content of an eBook?

User Licenses

The answer to this question depends on the terms of the agreement with the eBook content provider. There are a variety of licensing agreements, and each one is based on a different business model. The one book/one user (1:1) model is the most familiar and is similar to the traditional print book lending model. A book is purchased. One person at a time checks out the book. When it is returned to the collection, it can be checked out again.

This is also the model that most commercially sold, dedicated eReaders use. When buyers purchase eBooks for an eReader, they are acquiring a license to use the eBooks for one proprietary eReader device and one user. Because these eReaders and eBooks are designed for individual consumers and not institutions, there is not yet an acceptable model that works for school libraries. For example, in order to set up an account to purchase and download eBooks for eReaders, these consumer vendors require personal information and a credit card on file. Obviously, that is not a workable model for K-12 students for several reasons – particularly student privacy requirements.

In addition to the single-user license, other models include multiuser,(1:Many) unlimited simultaneous use, subscription and pay per use. Unlimited simultaneous use is particularly appealing to school libraries where the ability to provide simultaneous access to titles for classroom or group research projects is a common request.

It is important to understand the terms of each license agreement as it can mean the difference between perpetual access to the content or a leasing model where the school library loses access to the content if the subscription is cancelled. When evaluating eBook providers school libraries need to compare the available titles, file formats, platform restrictions, costs, licensing agreements, and the reporting data available. Other important features to consider are whether the eBooks can be used on interactive whiteboards as well as whether they have to be read online or can be downloaded on other devices.

School libraries can purchase eBook licenses directly from the publisher, although managing content from dozens of different publishers with their different content delivery systems and technical requirements can be time consuming. School libraries can also purchase eBooks from the same distributors, aggregators and service providers they work with for their print book acquisitions.

Not all eBook publishers/vendors have the same practices or policies and it is important to be aware of the differences. The following checklist addresses some of the critical issues that need to be considered when determining what type of eBook to purchase.

eBook Contract Checklist

  1. What are the details of the licensing agreement?
  2. Are there administrative or subscription fees that don't apply to eBook acquisition?
  3. What happens to "purchased" eBooks if the subscription is not renewed?
  4. Are there platform restrictions?
  5. Is the content device-specific?
  6. Is there an app to download and read eBooks offline?
  7. Does the program require individual user information for access?
  8. How much K-12 content is available?
  9. Can the content be used on classroom projection devices such as interactive whiteboards?
  10. What interactive features are available – dictionary, note taking, highlighting, keyword search?
  11. What usage reports are available?
  12. Can content be used/accessed on both school-owned and personal devices?


Every school/district is different, and it is possible to mix and match publishers, platforms and programs to achieve a customized plan that meets each school's individual needs. However, this kind of multifaceted approach may prove to be a strain on the school/district technology resources.

Technological change has impacted the publishing world like a tsunami. Many publishers have gone out of business because they were unable to adapt to the changing realities of the move to digital content. These changing realities continue to impact publishers' process and profits. Schools are dealing with their own budget woes as districts contend with decreased local, state and federal funding. School librarians must continue to be thoughtful about how they spend their limited funds. In the midst of all this turmoil, you can be sure that the options around purchasing and/or leasing eBooks will continue to evolve as educators and students consume an ever-increasing amount of digital content. However, the primary role of the school library will remain the same – to support students as they achieve their personal learning goals and to spark a love of reading and learning for a lifetime.

Key Takeaways

  • An important difference between print books and eBooks is that print books are owned by school libraries, whereas eBooks are not owned but instead a license is purchased to gain access to the eBook's content.
  • eBook licenses vary widely; some allow broad access for students, can be used simultaneously, and work on multiple devices. Other licenses are more restrictive.
  • The type of eBook license that is most appropriate for a school will depend on what devices the eBooks will be used on, usage restrictions, ancillary costs, and other considerations.