June 10, 2023

Moving Beyond the NetLibrary Legacy, EBSCO Reshapes Its Ebook Platform

(Library Journal is presenting a series of articles called Exploring Ebook Options that takes an indepth look at some of the ebook platforms that are now in the marketplace. The series, which is focusing primarily on the public library market, has so far provided an ebook primer for libraries just starting out with downloadable media as well as profiles of  Baker & Taylor’s Axis 360 and Library Ideas’ Freading. This story examines  Ebooks on EBSCOhost, which has strong academic and corporate roots but is becoming more attractive to public libraries as well.)

When EBSCO acquired NetLibrary from OCLC in March 2010, it obtained a fully formed ebook platform that already had a large collection of about 200,000 ebooks from 500 publishers available in 17,000 sites worldwide. The challenge was to smooth out this platform, now known as Ebooks on EBSCOhost, so that it could migrate to the EBSCO interface and there be remade.

The migration to EBSCOhost took just about a year to accomplish, debuting in March 2011, and the company has been focused since on highlighting and improving the value proposition, which reduces itself to four points:

  • An efficient, integrated user experience that allows all EBSCO content–ebooks, audiobooks, and databases–to be searched and downloaded from a single platform whose functionality is already widely familiar to the library community;
  • A variety of access and pricing models;
  • A more diversified collection with no setup, platform, or maintenance fees;
  • A new collection manager tool–EBSCOhost Collection Manager (ECM)–introduced last month.

According to company figures, the platform has shown steady growth, now comprising 26,100 sites worldwide (6730 public library sites), a collection of about 300,000 titles, and about 700 active publisher agreements. In EBSCO’s accounting, each branch in a system is considered a separate site.

“We are trying to provide the very best user experience across all content types in the library,” said Ken Breen, the company’s senior director, ebook products. “Whether the user starts out and enters our platform looking for a newspaper article, a journal article, a poem, or an ebook, they can easily get to any of the content they are entitled to,” he said.

“If you understand the basics of searching and using EBSCOhost, ebooks aren’t that different. It’s very intuitive,” Breen said. “Think about the time and money it saves a library staff to not have to train on another new platform,” he said

An integrated platform

The John F. Kennedy Memorial Library at California State University, Los Angeles, has over 40 EBSCOhost databases, and several of them are already well-known resources for students, according to Holly Yu, the library’s electronic resources coordinator.

“The Ebooks on EBSCOhost platform presents a very familiar search interface and features—email, save, print, export, and cite—for our students,” Yu said. “Compared to other ebook platforms, it is definitely easy to navigate.”

The familiarity and integration were also positives points to Sara Beasley, who is the coordinator for e-resources at the Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh.

Ken Breen

“I like that customers will stumble upon ebooks when doing a database search and vice versa,” Beasley said.

Although Ebooks on EBSCOhost suffers from a certain degree of inertia–public libraries offer it because they had NetLibrary–some have begun to take note of improvements.

“The improvements over the NetLibrary version have been significant enough for us to add [titles] to our collection,” said Chris Dobson, the director of the Irving Public Library in Texas. Irving had previously received the service at no charge through the Texas State Library and Archives Commission, and those titles remain available through the OCLC Digital Archive, an arrangement that was made to protect library’s investments in the NetLibrary collection. But the state library has not added titles to the collection for years because of budget cutbacks. Now, Dobson is spending money to expand her library’s offering.

To promote such decisions, EBSCO takes the publisher’s suggested list price and passes it through to any library without a markup, if the lending model is one-book, one-user. In addition, EBSCO made a significant change to the NetLibrary pricing model, according to Breen.

“When you purchased a book from NetLibrary there was a one-time fee added to cover the perpetual hosting, and we’ve eliminated that,” Breen said. “We have no markup, no annual fee, no maintenance fee, no hosting fee, no support fee. And the reason we did that is we learned from our customers that those were barriers to entry,” he said.

However, at other public libraries the platform still remains a bit of an afterthought.

The Fort Worth Public Library also had the service through the state library, and Sallie Fwank, an adult materials selector at Fort Worth, said she has not looked closely at the collection in some time, even though it remains in the library’s offerings. While not ruling EBSCO out, the library is focusing on developing its OverDrive collection.

“We may pick EBSCO up in future years and try to start adding to it, but we really don’t have the money to add everything we want,” Fwank said. “And our number one collection priority is best sellers and popular titles, but they don’t offer much of that,” she said.

It was a similar story at the Phoenix Public Library, which has not evaluated the collection in some time, even though it’s available to patrons.

“We carried this service over from NetLibrary. It’s getting some use by customers,” said Rita Marko, a library spokesperson. “We are reluctant to put more resources into it at this point because we need to conduct a thorough evaluation of all the different models and platforms available. We simply don’t have the staff resources to commit to such a task at this time.”

Even though Beasley, in Pittsburgh, also sees the platform as a complement to OverDrive at this point, she still welcomes the competition.

“We primarily have it because we had NetLibrary, but I also believe it is increasingly important to offer a range of options to foster competition and development among ebook services,” she said.

Diversifying content

When dealing with the public library market, the biggest challenge for EBSCO is diversification into popular content, particularly from the Big Six publishers (only two of which actually make their new ebooks available to public libraries).

“It’s probably a fair statement that if you looked at the collection as a whole across the 300,000 or so titles you would say there’s more university press content, more scholarly and STM publishing content,” Breen said. “But we are trying to diversify that and, like all aggregators, we are working in earnest to build out our collection to support the needs of public libraries,” he said. “We are hoping for a breakthrough.”

The company is talking to all of the Big Six and trying to leverage its relations with publishers to obtain more licenses, according to Scott Bernier, VP of marketing for EBSCO, but at present the platform offers no Big Six content.

““Our goal would be to be able to offer a service that has enough books and has a large enough collection to serve you as a medical institution, a hospital, a corporation, an academic library, or a public, or a K-12,” Bernier said. “Our goal is to offer as much as we can and as many ways to purchase them as we can,” he said.

Dobson, in Irving, TX, said she relies on OverDrive for popular titles (as well as Kindle compatibility), but that the EBSCO collection still brought something to the table.

“When we had funds available for ebooks last year the selector thought the available content was still a bit esoteric,” Dobson said. “However, it gives us an option to satisfy customers who want something outside what we normally have on the shelves,” she said.

But others in the public library sphere weren’t sold yet.

Scarlett Fisher-Herreman, technical services & collection development supervisor at the Topeka & Shawnee County Public Library in Kansas, said: “For us, we were looking for something that could provide a significant amount of popular fiction — for adults, YA, and kids — and EBSCO just didn’t have that kind of content,” she said, adding that the library made the evaluation last summer before deciding to sign with OverDrive. “I haven’t looked at it since last year so perhaps they’ve been able to add more of that type of content in,” Fisher-Herreman said.

In fact, over the last four months, EBSCO officials said they have added 1500 fiction titles, including Pocket Kings by Ted Heller, The Coldest Night by Robert Olmstead and Hystera by Leora Skolkin-Smith.  The collection also offers educational juvenile titles from publishers such as ABDO, Lerner, Chelsea House, Rourke, and Marshall Cavendish, and it contains travel and leisure titles such as Frommer’s guidebooks and numerous how-to and self-help titles such as the “Dummies” series.  And there are over 15,000 foreign-language titles.

“I think EBSCO is trying to be responsive to their public library customers, but in some ways they are at a disadvantage because they have a broader focus and come from a background that emphasizes other things,” said Beasley, in Pittsburgh. “But we’ll definitely be following the developments closely.”

Variety of access options

Even as EBSCO works to diversify the content, it is making an equally concentrated effort to offer a variety of access and pricing models, all of which are subject to terms and prices set by the publisher.

As mentioned above, if licensed on a one-book, one-user model the price is the publisher’s suggested list price with no markup. For one-book, three-users, the price is typically 50 percent more. And for unlimited simultaneous access the price is based on population served for public libraries (or FTE in the academic world).


“We do our best to get all those models from all publishers, but not every publisher is at a point where their publishing strategy allows them to be comfortable with all of of them,” Breen said. “We try to explain the benefits and do everything we can to secure all those options,” he said.

 In addition, libraries can use patron-driven acquisition (PDA), which exposes titles in the catalog and then triggers any of the access models listed above once a “meaningful use” occurs (e.g., a patron views an ebook for more than ten minutes or views more than ten pages). And EBSCO is aiming to offer patron-driven short-term lease as well as a patron-driven upgrade starting in the summer.

For example, if one title had been acquired under a one-book, one-user model but another user expressed interest in reading it when it had already been checked out, then a lease of seven, 14, or 28 days would be triggered at a small percentage of the list price so the second user would gain immediate access and avoid a hold. If enough leases are executed, then that could trigger an upgrade to the ebook license at an appropriate “ownership” model (e.g., one-book, three-users).

 “It’s really about providing options, about providing a larger swath of titles from as many publishers as we can work with, and giving more options for libraries to choose how they purchase, how they do their collection development, and PDA brings it all together,” Bernier said.

EBSCO also offers front-list subject sets for a fixed price (last week 39 new subject sets were released) and will also customize a collection for a library based on its needs and budget. Subscriptions are also available which provide, for an annual fee, access to multi-disciplinary anthologies that have new titles added each year.

“The variety of business models offers flexible options for libraries,” Yu at CSU said. “The need-based model selection flexibility definitely adds value for cash-strapped libraries.”

Other aggregators and publishers, such as ebrary, OverDrive, and Ingram/MyiLibrary, offer PDA as well.

“I always like options. Libraries all have different needs and models that work for them, so the more the better, as far as I’m concerned,” said Beasley. “This is especially true right now when everything is so unresolved.”

New content manager

All of these features are now bundled in the EBSCO Collection Manger (ECM) tool, which was released on April 10. ECM allows librarians to search ebooks and audiobooks, to order the various access models, to set up and manage PDA lists, and to access usage reports (through EBSCOadmin).

“I know the collection development librarian here said there’s so much to wade through it’s hard to know what’s there,” said Irving PL’s Dobson, pointing out the selector said the interface for NetLibrary “was horrible.” “So I hope this new interface will make it easier to order. That’s been the biggest stumbling block so far to expanding our collection,” she said.

Kathleen McEvoy, an EBSCO spokersperson, said that not having a feature like ECM in place until now made it difficult for customers to readily discover content that had been added since NetLibrary was acquired.

“With ECM in place, the content is more obvious,” McEvoy said.

EBSCO maintains a partnership with Baker & Taylor (B&T) so libraries can still order through Title Source 3 or YBP’s GOBI if they prefer.

“We are working to be as integrated as we can in those systems because customers have asked us to do that,” Breen said. “If that’s the workflow and that’s where they want to buy we are happy to accommodate that.”

Yu participated in a training session for ECM and said her library will be making a decision about whether and when to begin using it. Yu gave the overall platform high marks for its interface, navigation, usability, and pricing, but she saw one potential problem

“The only drawback is that it might be a time-consuming process for [academic] librarians who have to check in both GOBI and ECM to compare prices between an ebook and a print book before an order decision can be made, which may prevent some from fully using the ECM,” she said.

As part of its push to establish its own ebook platform, Axis 360, B&T recently integrated print and digital orders into one interface.

EBSCO’s ebooks are PDFs, but Breen said the company is building out its ability to process the EPUB format, which is how the majority of trade books are delivered today. The interface, which is ADA compliant, is browser-based, so no reader or hardware is required, but titles can be downloaded and transferred to a compatible portable device using Adobe Digital Editions. Compatible devices include the Nook and Sony Reader. Books can also be downloaded to the iPad and Kindle Fire using the BlueFire app.

Users can click on the ebook title from within the OPAC (MARC records are provided at no charge) but they still then jump interfaces and have to sign into their EBSCO account. But McEvoy said “we are actively pursuing ways to achieve deeper integration with OPACs, including authentication, availability checks, placing holds, and the like.” 3M’s Cloud Library and Polaris announced such an integration at the Public Library Association conference in March.

In a recent review of the EBSCO platform for LJ, Cheryl LaGuardia wrote:

“By integrating access within the library catalog and making the EBSCOhost interface the basis for search and discovery, EBSCO has performed a major service to readers and researchers alike.”

Michael Kelley About Michael Kelley

Michael Kelley is the former Editor-in-Chief, Library Journal.


  1. Their prices are still to high to make them a viable platform for smaller libraries.

  2. ex-H.W. Wilson worker says:

    Hello Michael and Library Journal readers. I think it’s important to let the library community know about Ebsco’s treatment of the workers in Dublin, Ireland, that they made redundant when they took over the H.W. Wilson Company in 2011. Ebsco paid these workers the bare legal minimum redundancy settlement allowed under Irish law. And they will recoup 60% of that from the Irish taxpayer! The Irish Labour Court recommended that the Irish HWW workers should be given a modest ex-gratia payment on top of the legal minimum. Ebsco has refused to abide by the court’s recommendation. This refusal is most unusual for any solvent company, let alone one as profitable as Ebsco. We would ask the Library community, especially in the U.S. for any help you can offer in persuading Ebsco to finally do the right thing. BTW, it is interesting to see that Ebsco is continuing to use the H.W. Wilson name and reputation in its publicity, given that all the Dublin workers who used to write the Wilson abstracts and the vast majority of HWW’s U.S. staff, who used to do the company’s indexing, have been made redundant. Are there questions to be asked about how – and how well – the indexing abstracts and indexes are being produced and by whom?

  3. ex-H.W. Wilson worker says:

    PS: Ebsco’s treatment of the Irish H.W. Wilson workers was strongly criticised by Irish T.D.s (Members of Parliament ) during a debate in the Dail (Irish parliament) on Wednesday May 2, 2012. The speakers who commented critically on Ebsco represented several different political parties from across the political spectrum. A letter about our campaignhas been published in the Irish Echo, a leading Irish-American newspaper.

    If you would like to support the Irish Wilson workers, please sign our petition at


    Many thanks to all our friend in the U.S. library community and beyond for all your kind comments and support. It means a lot!

  4. talkbacker says:

    Library software and e-books offer an astounding degree of convenience, speed and flexibility for researchers and lovers of books. However, the information provided is still the result of the labours of skilled and diligent writers. Many users of Ebsco are benefitting from the work of former employees of the H. W. Wilson Co. Please bear in mind their reasonable campaign for fairness when making use of Ebsco’s products and services.

  5. WilsonWorker2 says:

    Absolutely correct. At the time of the takeover, Ebsco made many references to the quality and reputation of H.W. Wilson products, but they have since shown that they have no interest in fair treatment for the people whose work forged that reputation.

  6. Ex-Wilson Worker says:

    Ebsco is an extremely profitable company at least in part because of the labors of its writing and editing staff, including those employed by the venerable H. W. Wilson Co., the subject of a recent takeover by Ebsco. It is, therefore, not unreasonable that Ebsco should fairly compensate former Wilson workers who have been made redundant, abiding by the ruling of the Irish Labour Court. Remember, many of these individuals were loyal employees, some of whom served the company for 15 years or more.