When buying a print book, libraries own it outright and are free to lend it as they wish to library users. This is not the case with e-books. Publishers do not sell e-book ownership to institutions, they only sell e-book licences to access e-books. Therefore libraries do not own them outright and it is only the publishers who decide how e-books can be used e.g. they control and impose access restrictions on borrowing, scanning, copying, etc.
Only around 10% of academic titles are available as e-books at the time of writing. Many e-book titles cost several times their print equivalent or more. Many publishers withdraw e-book titles from sale to institutions and only allow private individuals to purchase e-books via platforms such as Kindle, Nook, Kobo etc. Therefore, if a title appears to be available as an e-book, a lot of the times, it may only be so for individuals, not institutions. Some e-book licences are only sold within specific countries which means that we cannot buy them.
Apart from when an e-book is open access (freely online to anyone and with no restrictions) which is the most helpful publication model for both universities and students, paid-for e-book licences can be:
Some e-books titles are available through a variety of licence models while others have only one model. The library aims to buy the best licence types where budgets allow. If not possible, multiple single-user licences can be bought, depending on whether a title is in on essential, recommnede or background reading and how many modules use it.
Some e-books are only available to be purchased in bundles with other e-book titles which may not be needed. Some e-book models charge a fee per student per year which means that costs quickly add up to hundreds or thousands of pounds every year for one e-book licence. Learn more about these from the #ebookSOS campaign and sign the open letter.