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Article & Report

Developing a Digital Library: UNITEC’s Centralized eBook Library Enables Equitable Access Without the Effort

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Sean Paterson | August 13, 2021

When Federico Jose Noriega joined La Universidad Tecnológica de México (UNITEC) in 2015, he inherited a textbook problem.

A national law called Criterios Esenciales para Evaluar Planes y Programas de Estudio requires all universities in Mexico to make a certain quantity of each required course book available free for students to borrow. UNITEC – already one of the largest universities in the country – was in a period of rapid expansion. The result was a staggering number of books for the university to purchase, manage, and make space for.

As Director of Innovation & Academic Services, it fell on Noriega to ensure compliance with this requirement. But his team was too short-staffed to process the volume of books involved; the system wasn’t scalable or sustainable.

Noriega credits his response to his background as an industrial engineer. “I enjoy being surrounded by problems,” he says. “That’s what an engineer does; that’s why engineers exist.” And so instead of being dismayed by the problem, he just started searching for a solution.

His solution for UNITEC’s book problem was a first in education – a centralized digital library where students can temporarily ‘check out’ a digital copy of any course book they may need, regardless of publisher. This would enable UNITEC to meet its legal requirements and provide equitable access at a lower cost, with less complexity, and with fewer physical books to manage.

“It is a library,” he says. “It is virtual, but it works exactly the same while avoiding all the stress of the process.”

Winning Over Publishers

Bringing this vision to life wasn’t easy. The hardest part: getting book publishers to buy in.

Many publishers are reluctant to offer their libraries in digital form. Some lack technical expertise; others balk at the complexities of calculating eBook royalties. And piracy concerns make them hesitant to share their digital books with third parties. The publishers that had gone digital in 2015 were all using their own proprietary platforms for distribution – there were no one-stop shops for every eBook a student might need.

“I was thinking: ‘Ok, I’m going to have McGraw’s library, Pearson’s library, Cengage’s library,” Noriega recalls. “How in the world am I going to integrate all those libraries? How am I going to manage the users and passwords to give access? How much money am I going to need to pay?”

It took lots of lobbying decision-makers in the publishing world. One by one, though, Noriega managed to convince several publishers (including McGraw-Hill, Cengage Learning, and Elsevier) to give his vision a try: “One single platform for every single publisher.”

Finding the Right Partner

Next, Noriega needed a partner that could provide the technology his vision needed. This included a platform for providing access to eBooks and a tool for reading them – but those were just the basics.

As a digital library, the distribution platform would need to enable temporary loans and a wait-list system for eBooks, all automated to maximize efficiency. This was another thing nobody was doing at the time.

UNITEC ultimately chose Kivuto Solutions, a Canadian EdTech company, to bring Noriega’s digital library to life. Kivuto had been helping schools centralize, manage, and distribute digital resources for over 20 years, and they offered a full-featured eReading app built specifically for education (Texidium). Their platform had never supported a library model – but with a little innovation (and guidance from Noriega), they were able to adapt it to that purpose.

The Result

UNITEC’s digital library came online in 2018. Now students at UNITEC can access over 1,000 free books online through a central, self-serve platform.

“You can go into the library, you can search for a specific book, you can borrow that book for seven days – which is exactly what we are doing in the physical library,” Noriega says. If a book is already checked out, students are added to a wait list and receive it automatically as soon as it becomes available. Students are also able to purchase permanent licenses of books through the digital library, which is convenient for them and financially beneficial for the school.

Now UNITEC can meet their obligations around access to books without maintaining a vast physical inventory. They can leverage data on check-out rates and wait-list lengths to assess demand and inform procurement. Staff no longer have to QA countless texts for printing errors. Students can get any book they need without visiting multiple sites or a physical library.

And when COVID-19 made physical libraries inaccessible, the digital library kept students connected to the resources they needed. “When the pandemic hit, that was the only library students could use,” says Noriega. “And it still is!”

The Future

The success of the digital library doesn’t mean traditional texts have become obsolete at UNITEC. Though Noriega can foresee physical libraries becoming obsolete someday, he thinks that day’s still 10-15 years off.

In the meantime, Noriega would like to see his digital library evolve into what he calls a “digital resource portal” – a site where students can obtain not only all the books they need, but links to access institutional databases and download course software, all in one location.

Noriega also has some thoughts on how publishers can facilitate digital transformation in education. “Stop investing in platforms, and start investing in content,” he says. “Evolving that content and what can be done in the digital world.”

Author

Sean Paterson

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