E-books face bright future

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Discussions about the potential of electronic books were enthusiastic despite near-term challenges at the recent Online Information show in London, as Tom Wilkie and Siân Harris discovered

The future for electronic books is bright, with spending in libraries expected to double within the next three years, Maxim van Gisbergen, product manager for e-books at Swets, told a seminar at the Online Information show in London at the beginning of December.

Some 97 per cent of US academic libraries already have some e-books, he said, but adoption is expected to be slower and to work differently from the adoption of electronic journals. Research libraries are devoting only 11 per cent of their expenditure on monographs to e-books and only 12 per cent had a separate budget for e-books.

Van Gisbergen also noted that when in doubt, a librarian’s default position was to buy the print version of a book; whereas for journals, when there was any doubt, they would buy the electronic journal. The purchase of e-books tended to depend on whether the library had an enthusiast for the technology on the staff.

Librarians have a mixed picture of the value of e-books to them and their readers, he continued. They are enthusiastic about the possibilities of users accessing e-books anytime anywhere and the usage tends to be higher than for the print equivalent. The technology supports ‘power browsing’ behaviour of users and provides usage statistics to the librarians while decreasing their workload.

However, he said, librarians are frustrated by the poor supply of textbooks in e-format; the fact that many publishers produce e-books after the print version, so there is a lag in publication times; and by the restrictive digital rights management conditions attached to e-books. In addition, they have concerns related to the loss of access to titles via the inter-library loans system, by the lack of standard terms and conditions from one publisher to another; and by the prices charged.

Librarians prefer to buy title by title, but have had to acquire e-books as part of larger collections. However, the ‘pick and choose’ model is becoming more popular now that critical mass in the e-book market has been achieved.

Many libraries are still relatively unprepared for e-books, according to van Gisbergen. Librarians worry about the impact e-books would have on the library itself. What would become of the physical building and the space in which they worked if it became a digital library? They are also concerned about the impact on librarians themselves. Would the technology lead to redundancies and reductions in staffing levels and, even if not, what would be the future role and job-function of librarians in a digital library?

David Nicholas of UCL’s CIBER group

But confusion remains one of the biggest barriers to adoption by libraries, he said. There is a lack of transparency in what a librarian is actually buying and difficulty in comparing price and licence conditions across e-book vendors. Sometimes it is difficult simply to find out what e-books are available, he said.

Studying usage patterns

The E-book Observatory project in the UK is shedding more light on how e-books are being used in universities. ‘Students are struggling with a poor information supply in a world where information is rich. The E-Book Observatory project has been trying to shower data into the arena and unblock the blockage,’ explained David Nicholas of UCL’s CIBER group in the UK in his conference presentation at Online.

The study has involved 127 universities over 15 months, with questionnaires at the beginning and end. Nicholas and his colleagues have been studying logs of user behaviour over time, and users were asked in focus groups why they used the e-books in the ways that they did.

In the first 14 months there were seven million page views and half a million sessions. Typical sessions included eight to nine pages and lasted 17 minutes. ‘Users consume the contents of e-textbooks in small chunks but then I don’t think readers ever read whole books of this sort in one session,’ said Nicholas. A quarter of usage is outside the hours of 8am to 6pm. Students access e-books at 3am or 4am just like they do with e-journals. However, Nicholas cautioned against assuming that usage of e-books would have exactly the same pattern as for journals.

There are also still plenty of challenges remaining for e-books. ‘E-book adoption is already pretty significant but there could be tens of thousands times more use of e-books. We think that because we have done e-journals that the digital transition is done but in fact it has only just begun,’ commented Nicholas.