Electronic books entice academic librarians

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Love it or loathe it, electronic publishing in the academic world is here to stay. Already well established in the journal sector, the virtual world is now edging towards the scholarly book market, with more and more libraries acquiring electronic books alongside traditional print holdings.

As one librarian from Victoria University, Melbourne, Australia put it: ‘Electronic books are now a serious option. In two years all university libraries will be much more comfortable buying e-books. In five years print and e-book purchases will be equal and in 10 years, e-books will be the norm.’

Quite a prophesy, but will it come true? Olaf Ernst, president of eProduct management and innovation at Germany-based scientific publisher, Springer, believes so. His company currently offers nearly 20,000 e-books and plans to add 4000 titles a year to its collection.

‘Electronic books are still in an early phase but the STM market will demand that publishers move more and more information online,’ he said. ‘We believe e-books will follow a very similar trajectory to online journals. It took a number of years for researchers and librarians to accept electronic journals and it will be a similar, but perhaps shorter story, for e-books.’

So why are librarians relatively eager to adopt electronic books? Springer recently joined forces with German qualitative research business, Attfield Dykstra and Partners, to ask a range of librarians from around the world this very question.

The results revealed that librarians believe e-books enhance user access and book functionality while providing better access to more content. They also appreciate being able to integrate electronic books and journals on a single platform, according to the study. What’s more, it found that librarians value the space savings and greater security - from reduced book losses - brought by going electronic.

On top of these advantages, Ernst believes that even more benefits will come to light once adoption is more widespread. For example, his company provides e-books chapter by chapter. This means the user does not have to download an entire book, but can simply print the relevant section instead.

‘This represents a new type of user behaviour for e-books - users are not just looking for a whole book but rather searching for relevant chapters,’ he commented. ‘We have indexed our content all the way to the abstract-level of a chapter… so users can print a single chapter as a PDF file.’

According to Ernst if the reader then found several chapters to be of interest, he or she might consider buying a personal copy of that book. ‘In the future, customers will be able to buy print-to-order books, simply by clicking on a button [on a website]. In this case, I envision e-books stimulating sales of print books,’ he added.

Benefits aside, how much will it cost a library to actually adopt electronic books? Many surveyed librarians expected actual short-term costs to equal any potential long-term cost savings.

As one librarian pointed out, resources would have to be spent acclimatising users to the new technology. Meanwhile, pricing and licensing negotiations were also deemed costly.

However, cost-savings could be expected from reduced physical handling, less of a need for storage and archiving, circulation and shelf maintenance. As one librarian stated: ‘I don’t need to spend a long time explaining to users how to use a PDF file but I have to explain to 35 people every day where to find [books shelved at] ‘3F’ or ‘3H’.’

Ernst is hopeful the advent of e-books will also herald new functions for the librarian. ‘Librarians will play a new role as information brokers - they must watch technological developments to satisfy readers’ expectations,’ he explained. ‘And for an institution to get IP-access a good technical team is essential, which may include electronic resources librarians, cataloguers as well as the IT-savvy personnel.’

So as the adoption of electronic books gathers momentum across academia, surely the million dollar question is: will the scholarly e-book replace the traditional, hands-on read?

Surveyed librarians believed that while the libraries of the future will look different from today’s institutions, print resources will always occupy shelves. And Ernst agrees.

‘The e-book format is ideal for those only using chapters of a book as a quick reference,’ he concluded. ‘But students and researchers who require continuous and frequent use of a book, will probably buy [it] and libraries will still stock books on their shelves.’