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E-books & Academic Libraries

February 20, 2013
by Amy Deuink, Tom Reinsfelder, & Christina Steffy
Glowing Book Test 4

image: jasoneppink at flickr

In case you haven’t heard, libraries are changing. Electronic books currently represent one of the most significant changes facing librarians. This change presents both opportunities and challenges. Additionally, e-books raise several important questions for librarians to consider as we build and maintain our collections both for today’s users as well as the researchers of the future.

What do we like about E-books?

As with online journals, e-books can be acquired in large packages allowing access to a greater volume of material at a more affordable price than if purchased individually. E-books also offer:

  • Minimal delays for delivery and processing after library’s initial purchase.
  • Immediate access to an expanded collection of materials, regardless of patron location.
  • No need to wait for ILL.
  • Multiple readers may use the same text concurrently.
  • The ability to read on e-readers (iPad, Android, Kindle Fire). Some even allow unrestricted downloading, saving, and printing.
  • The ability to bookmark pages and make electronic notes within a text.

What don’t we like about E-books?

While e-books have many pros that make them attractive to schools, libraries, and students, there are also many cons both for e-book users and for those institutions that wish to implement widespread e-book adoption.

  • Users still prefer “real” books: Not all users want or even enjoy using e-books; some may prefer “real” books that they can touch, highlight, and page through. Although e-book technology is improving the ability to “page through” books and annotate them, these features are still developing.
  • Technology infrastructure: You need a robust wireless network for everyone to be plugged into it constantly. While you can access e-books without a wireless connection once the books are downloaded, there may be value added features such as searches, linking to web content, etc., that you cannot use without wireless connectivity.
  • Price: E-books are not cheap; sure they may be cheap in comparison to print books, but ultimately you have to buy a reader and may still pay a hefty price for a book that you as the user or you as the library are only licensing rather than purchasing.
  • No book sales: Users and libraries cannot sell used e-books, so they may pay money for a book and have no chance of being able to sell it to anyone.
  • Licensing/DRM restrictions: Not all e-books are available to patrons who are not matriculated or on staff at your school. Also, you may not be able to lend an e-book like you can lend a print book. Finally, e-books provided by library databases may have other restrictions such as the number of users who can view a book at one time.
  • E-reader displays and compatibility: Graphics are not always rendered clearly. Not all e-books display page numbers and those that do may have different page numbers than other e-books and print books. Not all e-books are compatible with different e-readers.

What do patrons want? Online vs. Offline Use

All libraries are missioned to serve the needs of our users. Academic libraries primarily collect literature and scholarly works complimenting the fields of study at their university, while public libraries more often serve the needs of users through popular works for education and entertainment. Given this, one might expect how our populations use e-books would vary—more cover-to-cover reading or skimming of popular titles versus careful and selective study of scholarly works. But is this really the case?

Some users are looking for the convenience of digital loans of coveted titles for download to a personal device, while others harness the power of search and discovery in vast libraries of digital texts. Many public libraries use Overdrive to deliver popular titles, while academic libraries are contracting with services like EbraryEBLEBSCOSpringer, or Project MUSE that concentrate on scholarly works. Each publisher or provider offers different content, features, search interfaces, and access methods—and therein lies the rub. Different rules for use varying from database to database (or even from one title to the next in the same database) and a host of interfaces to untangle are making it difficult for libraries to effectively promote the e-books they do have.

Compelling reasons for figuring this all out are the rapid rises in e-book reading and tablet/e-book reader ownership, as reported in a December 2012 Pew Internet report, “E-Book Reading Jumps; Print Book Reading Declines.” According the to the Pew report, e-book reading is quickly on the rise among high school students (16-17 years old) (p. 4) and tablet/e-book reader ownership among all ages rose from 18% to 33% between 2011 and 2012 (p. 2).

Questions to Consider

How can we make e-books easier to use?

How do e-books impact:
 – Users who are not affiliated with your college/university (visitors, public, alumni)?
 – Interlibrary Loan?
 – Long term access.  Do you really own it?
Should academic libraries be providing e-book collections of popular fiction and and other non-academic works topics?
6 Comments leave one →
  1. Heather Simoneau permalink
    February 20, 2013 2:37 pm

    Rather than ask how academic libraries can make e-books easier to use, I would rephrase the question to be why are publishers not making institutional access to e-books as easy and seamless as they make consumer access to e-books? My library has a subscription to Academic Collection. I like the selection of content offered by AC, but it is not easy to download a whole book. The user has to create an Adobe account so they can download Adobe Digital Editions so they can….at this point our patrons give up. Academic publishers have to make downloading an e-book as easy as Amazon and Barnes & Noble make it.

    • M.L. Patrick permalink
      February 20, 2013 4:44 pm

      I agree with Heather. Publishers/vendors need to be pressured/motivated to make their e-book interfaces more user-friendly. Access standardization would be ideal. Libraries and e-book users can play an important role to incentivize change.

  2. M.L. Patrick permalink
    February 20, 2013 4:50 pm

    For one who enjoys and promotes e-books, I appreciate your excellent overview of the topic.

  3. February 25, 2013 9:24 pm

    Thanks for the overview. On the positive side I’d like to add usage statistics, speed ( I can order a requested title immediately and have it on the patrons computer within minutes) and the possibility to do patron driven acquisition, making for a more evidence based selection.

    I do not see the price as an advantage. Most scholalrly publishers offer their ebooks at the price of 1-1.5 times the hardback price. That is on average 3 times but easily up to 8 times the price tag of paperbacks we used to buy. But yes, yo do have all the advantages.

    I would encourage all academic libraries not to go with publishers that keep insisting on the use of DRM and all sorts of ugly barriers to use and tell them you will spend your thousands on stuff from publishers just offering PDF’s and ePUBs without any DRM, just like they all do with their journals.

  4. Christina Steffy permalink
    February 26, 2013 6:10 pm

    These comments raise great points. It would be wonderful to have standardization across platforms, whether or not you’re looking at e-books for textbooks or leisure reading. I also have an independent publishing company and we publish trade publications and it’s still frustrating to have different displays on different readers, especially when graphics are involved. Formatting still needs to come a long way with e-books in general. Everything related to e-books must come a long way yet it seems, especially in the world of academia since that world appears to have been overlooked initially by the e-book market. But speaking from experience our ability to handle the required technology infrastructure must also come a long way; when I began looking at e-book use in the curriculum at my school, we ran up against more cons for us than pros and that’s why I wanted to write that section above. Then I recently came across the following article which speaks to bandwidth problems on campus; this is something that everyone must be aware of, particularly librarians as we are more involved with technology initiatives like widespread e-book use. Digital devices invade campus, networks feel the strain

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