Librarians embrace e-books

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E-books are growing in popularity amongst librarians and library users, writes Tom Wilkie from London Book Fair

Both specialist academic and ordinary public libraries are seeing increasing demands from their readers for access to e-books, the conference at the 2010 London Book Fair heard in April.

‘The time for the e-book has come,’ according to Hazel Woodward, librarian to Cranfield University in the UK. Why e-books in an academic library? ‘Because users want them’, she continued. Users want access to information 24/7 and are surprised to discover that they cannot get their books that way – because, for example, libraries tend to shut at night.

E-books are always available, she explained. Moreover, they do not get lost, stolen, physically mis-filed on the wrong shelves or have chapters razored out of them by selfish readers.

She pointed out that students are buying fewer and fewer books and so they need the library more than ever. And, in libraries that are full to bursting, e-books can save space in the library building – thus freeing up room for group study.

Although e-books may have their genesis in reference works, they are also increasingly being taken up by those reading for pleasure because they have characteristics that are useful to non-specialist public libraries also, according to Martin Palmer, chief librarian for Essex Country Council in the UK.

Palmer noted that the traditional mainstream library is not suited to the needs of the housebound, commuters (who are certainly not housebound but who cannot physically get to the library during opening hours), the visually impaired, and students. Multi-user digital licences for e-books can solve the problem experienced by many public libraries of cohorts of school children descending simultaneously and en masse to do the research for a school project just set them by their teachers. The visually impaired can transform an e-book into a large-print version at the touch of a button. And mobile users are able to read material while they are on the move.

But Hazel Woodward said that, to assure the future of libraries, ‘librarians will have to get their act together. Some library websites look antediluvian. OPAC has had its day. We will have to make access as easy as possible and next generation library catalogues – academic ‘Google’-style interfaces – are making access to e-resources much easier.’

In the academic world, many publishers are offering ‘big deals’ for e-books as they have done for e-journals, she noted. But consortium deals in UK academic libraries tend not to work, she said, because different lecturers at different institutions have the independence to recommend different course textbooks to their students. She contrasted this with the situation in the USA, where there appears to be a set cannon of undergraduate texts that cut across universities and are discipline-specific such as common sets of texts for engineering or for sociology courses.

Librarians also face logistical problems in obtaining supplies of e-text books. ‘We cannot buy them, even though there is a demand out there.’ Users want the library to be the central provider of e-books. Around a quarter of UK students have expressed dissatisfaction about the print book provision in their university library and 50 per cent of teaching staff claim that their students have complained about this.

‘There will still be a huge demand for content to support academia,’ concluded Woodward.