EBSCO and ecards and who is setting your library policies?

EBSCO made a bold move recently claiming that libraries that offer e-cards [for accessing electronic library resources from home] are violating their licensing agreement. San Francisco Public Library has a statement on their databases page.

Special Notice Regarding E-Card Users: Due to electronic vendor licensing agreements, San Francisco Public Library must suspend issuing e-cards, effective immediately. Existing e-cardholders must validate their current address no later than April 10, 2009 in order to continue using SFPL databases and other electronic resources remotely. This validation must take place in person with appropriate identification and proof of address at any San Francisco Public Library Branch or the Main Library. The Library will continue to investigate ways of offering a revised e-card in the future. We recommend that non-San Francisco Bay Area residents check for similar electronic resources at their local public library. We apologize for the inconvenience

Boston Public Library is taking a different tack and keeping the e-card program and dropping remote access to EBSCO. Both libraries have to curtail services — and SFPL is changing their e-card policies fairly dramatically — because of this. Does anyone else see this as a shot across the bow? While I’m aware that things are tough all over, this move surprises me. Not because it may not be EBSCO legally enforcing their agreement, but because libraries with e-card options have always been offering patrons an amazing service in a way that seemed almost too good to be true. I have access to Heritage Quest with my totally free library card at the library I work at. Lucky me, but really anyone can get a card at my library — no matter where you live, no matter where you pay taxes — and get access to the same resources. I think this move, and libraries’ decisions about their responses to it, is going to be the start of a long (or depending how you look at it, continuing) struggle.

19 thoughts on “EBSCO and ecards and who is setting your library policies?

  1. I don’t understand why this is a problem. The library has already paid for access to the databases (most likely a set rate per year, but something negotiated between the library and EBSCO). Why does it matter where anyone lives as long as the companies providing the databases get paid the amount they agreed on?

  2. Well, the licensing fees are usually based on service population, which is the number of people who could conceivably get a card, so their argument is that if the library isn’t authenticating online-only cardholders as actually being a part of the service population, then it’s a violation. It’s definitely a shot across the bow and an interesting counterpoint to most of the “we’ll work with you to make it affordable just please please please renew your contract” types of mass mailings most of the database vendors have been sending around.

    I think this is actually coming from the rise of local proxies and auth schemes that the put the library in charge of who gets in to the database and who doesn’t…. there’s no way that the vendors can possibly check on and enforce their licenses when they’re no longer handling the auth, so they need to make sure that libraries stay skittish about their contracts.

  3. How is an e-card different from providing access through ezproxy? At my library, all students get a student id card, which doubles as the library id card. The students have a student id number assigned at first registration and receive ezproxy access/authentication. I’m not sure how a public library would handle this differently. If they said that their user population is a certain size and issue library cards accordingly, why would a vendor have a problem with this? I am presuming that the identity of the cardholder is authenticated at the library, the same way a student is identified here when she picks up her student id card. I’m not sure of all the details in this case, but aren’t the e-cards in public libraries the same thing as a student id card at a college?

  4. I think by e-cards they are referring to libraries that allow patrons to sign up for a library card number online before it has been verified that they are qualified to receive one, ie they live out of the service area.

    Some public libraries allow people to sign up online so they they can place holds, but it also allows access to subscription databases. Only when they go in to pick up their holds will they actually be issued a library card and have their eligibility confirmed.

    It’s been a quietly known issue for a while and I am surprised that is has taken Ebsco so long to catch on to it.

  5. It has been coming to the front as an issue for awhile, and this situation might elevate it for more discussions. SFPL’s library system — and more and more systems now in use and coming — allows this “online” (starter) access to “speed” things up, for new users mostly. It allows a temporary :) card to be obtained immediately, and users can then do certain things with this card – including search online databases that are on the library’s authentication scheme. Once they go in to the library, to get the card, it’s verified where they live, eligible status, and the card is made full or not.
    SFPL’s sign-up as we saw it was not limited by any geography to their user population; anyone anywhere could get this card, and use it (I can’t recall for how long) to search the databases. I think the vendor considered this non-geographic specific aspect of issuing online cards the problem. I’m sure we’ll hear more about this one.
    (speaking only for himself)

  6. I was recently re-reading all our vendor licenses – the key thing seems to be the validation process of the user to guarantee they are eligible to be a library card holder for your institution – and not some scary “other” trying to access a resource for free. So instead of working with the libraries to allow their virtual services to thrive and increase use they choose to restrict access. Grandma called that throwing the baby out with the bathwater.

    This is also interesting considering another vendor is working with a large metropolitan area to test access to their database by (potentially) allowing a free pass based on ISP for a geographic area.

    This is a big PR mistake on EBSCOs part – and they would have to sponsor a whole hell of a lot more of NPR to make up for it.

  7. Adri, I think it’s worth pondering why Ebsco IS advertising on NPR. Who are they advertising to?? If we put these two things together:
    1) Ebsco Advertising directly to the end user
    2) Ebsco putting time/energy (and spending political capital with libraries) to limit libraries’ ability to provide Ebsco to customers.

    It looks like they might be moving toward offering direct, fee-based service to end users.

  8. ProQuest “sponsors” NPR too – I figured EBSCO was doing it to pimp their line of fishing rods. ;-)

  9. That’s an excellent point, Peter. Rosetta Stone’s success in taking the product to the people and cutting the libraries out of their business while incurring essentially no ill will has surely been noticed by the other database vendors, even accounting for the relatively high appeal of language learning compared to research databases. On the other hand, it’s very hard to imagine that a full text index marketed directly to end users could possibly bring in as much revenue as libraries are pouring down these vendor’s throats at the moment, especially since libraries still struggle to demonstrate to casual users how these products are preferable to stuff on the open web. On the gripping hand, we generally suck at marketing.

  10. The Boston Public/EBSCO situation isn’t as cut and dried as it may seem.

    The BPL’s service population isn’t the City of Boston. “As Library of Last Recourse [for the Commonwealth of Massachusetts], the Library’s legal mandate includes the following objectives: 1) to develop, maintain, and preserve comprehensive collections of a research and archival nature to supplement the library resources of the Commonwealth, and 2) to provide to all citizens of the Commonwealth access to the reference and research collections of the Boston Public Library.” [1] In short: The BPL is legally obligated to provide all residents of the Commonwealth with access to all services. And it’s not like EBSCO didn’t know that when they issued the contract.

    The issue is that the BPL has elected to make it *easy* for someone in, say, Springfield (an hour and a half away) or North Adams (3 hours away) to gain access to remotely-accessible resources by instituting a self-signup eCard program.

    Where this starts to impact EBSCO is in the fact that Springfield can now turn around and say, “Nah, we’re not going to renew our EBSCO license because our patrons can legally use the BPL’s resources.”

    So what’s the solution? Force anyone in the state who wants to use their taxpayer-funded library resources to start with a trip to Boston? Empower every library in the state to issue BPL borrowers’ cards, incurring an enormous expense in infrastructure, connectivity and training? Or continue with a self-registration eCard system that requires users to attest to their residency in order to complete the process?

    [1] http://www.bpl.org/research/aboutrl.htm

  11. I just looked at the BPL’s ecard registration page [http://catalog.mbln.org/ipac20/ipac.jsp?profile=bpl1&menu=account]

    The BPL has made it trivially easy to get a 3-year ecard using a fake name and nonexistent address.

    Unless they consider every dishonest person on the World Wide Web to be part of their service population, this looks to me like a gaping security hole.

  12. @LK,

    I’m pretty sure the BPL doesn’t consider every dishonest person who walks in with a forged electric bill to be part of their service population, either. The alternatives are to increase the burden of proof (to what level?) or cut off access.

    And you’re ignoring the larger point. EBSCO isn’t just complaining that people *outside* of Massachusetts are getting eCards. They’re complaining that people *inside* Massachusetts but outside of Boston are getting eCards, and it’s impacting their contracts elsewhere in the state. And there’s just nothing the BPL can legally do about that, since its mandate includes serving the entire Commonwealth.

  13. Ah, thanks, Mike. Now I see why EBSCO cares about this.

    And eli: at my library, at least, there is plenty of ill will towards Rosetta for dropping all licensing to libraries.

  14. This is ironic: earlier this week I got an email from EBSCO saying they are offering their Career Library database free to any public library that wants it (due to more people looking for jobs in this tough economy). Odd how they crack down in one area while opening up in another.

    I don’t think EBSCO is preparing for a Rosetta-style bait-and-switch by circling the wagons before they go direct to the consumer market. I think they are just legitimately defending their contracts (in much the same way that companies must defend their trademarked brand names, or else lose the trademark on them: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Genericized_trademark).

    For a business, this makes perfect sense – honestly, I was always a little astonished that BPL could get away with what they were doing. But as a librarian, I will be very sad if ecards were to go away, because it is definitely a step backwards. Especially in MA, where, as Michael points out, every MA resident is entitled to use BPL resources – and not having to drive into Boston makes that a whole lot more realistic.

  15. Looks like you’re getting trackback spam on this entry.
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  16. interesting… it appears that Gale is not imposing the same restriction.

  17. Brian,

    Personally, I wouldn’t consider the Career Library situation an instance of “opening up.” It’s only free for the rest of the year – then you have to start paying. More savvy marketing than social responsibility.


  18. @Rachel: you’re right, it is a limited time offer – however, a free chicken dinner is still a free chicken dinner, especially if it helps someone find a job. However, I talked with an ebsco sales rep at the Massachusetts Library Conference last week, and she said ebsco was overwhelmed with librarians responding to their free offer, and were backed up by a week or so in responding to inquiries. So there’s another example of poor planning and underestimating response.

    But to their credit, ebsco is telling us up front that it’ll be free until the end of the year, then 50% off for the first year – libraries can plan accordingly, or prepare patrons for the cut-off after the free period. Open intentions are good – telling us in November or December would have been bad.

  19. In EBSCO’s defense, I would be very surprised if they (EBSCO) understood that they were negotiating effectively a STATEWIDE license when discussing terms with Boston Public. There are nine regional library networks in Mass, each of which licenses e-resources (including EBSCO databases) for use by patrons of their own member libraries. The list of databases available from each regional network is in most cases a subset of those available remotely through the BPL. If the service population of the Boston Public Library is for purposes of remote database usage interpreted to include the entire Commonwealth of Massachusetts, then the most efficient way to work this is for the BPL to license as such and the regional networks should drop their duplicative subscriptions and use those savings to pick up the additional burden the BPL is carrying.

    I also agree—this is a bone-headed PR move on the part of EBSCO.

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