Monday, July 16, 2007

Global E-Book Survey Finds Challenges and Benefits of E-Books

In 1982, Professor F. Wilfrid Lancaster, a pioneer in Information Sciences, coined the term “electrobook” to describe digital volumes of the future. Over two decades later, the electronic book, or e-book, is still an evolving species, and libraries are discovering the benefits and challenges of migrating from print to electronic texts.

The collections of Ball State University Libraries include thousands of e-books ranging from almost 2,000 technical, scholarly, and popular books in to nearly 400 reference titles in databases from Gale, Oxford, and Credo Reference, and over 37,000 books, pamphlets, and broadsides from Early American Imprints. Additionally, the University Libraries link users to hundreds of thousands of e-books available through Project Gutenberg and the expansive Google Book Search Project.

While e-books provide users with excellent advantages, including 24/7/365 desktop access and full-text searchability, electronic book collections have experienced slow to moderate growth in most academic libraries. There are a number of obstacles that keep the e-book evolution from becoming an e-book revolution.

The Global EBook Survey, conducted in March 2007 by ebrary, a leading electronic content provider, synthesizes results from a poll of 552 individual libraries (77% were academic libraries) about their development and usage of their digital book collections. The survey results present a number of variables responsible for stunting the growth of e-book collections of libraries, and it offers immediate challenges for both libraries and electronic book publishers and vendors.

According to the study, the largest inhibitor to e-book usage is lack of user awareness. Many libraries are grappling with effective marketing strategies for electronic formats. The primary avenue of access is the library public catalog. At the Ball State University Libraries, for example, each purchased title appears in the online public catalog, CardCat, with a live link to the actual resource.
This, of course, presumes that users can successfully use the catalog to locate electronic resources and raises questions about taxonomy and information architecture, building into websites logical paths to information. The University Libraries diligently provides multiple access points to e-books. Additionally, we provide our users with multiple avenues for learning about the assets we provide including newsletters, blogs, liaison programs, and library instruction programs, all of which are designed to connect students and faculty with the rich teaching and learning resources available at the University Libraries.

According to the survey, vendor business models are another major hindrance to e-book collection growth. With their advent, electronic resources sounded like an economical solution to rising publisher costs. Unfortunately, libraries soon discovered that expensive printing, processing, and shipping costs morphed into more expensive technical costs. In most cases, format conversion from print to electronic does not represent a savings for libraries. Early distributors of electronic book content did not offer libraries flexible purchasing or subscription options, often selling e-books in subject-specific packages, preventing libraries from making title-level collection decisions based on curricular and budgetary need. These packages, which still exist, are often very costly and contain a mixture of desirable and undesirable titles. There is some noticeable improvement in models, and many vendors have realized the importance of offering libraries maximum selection flexibility.

The survey results also call on vendors to develop more intuitive and useful interfaces. If a library user cannot figure out how to access or use an e-book, they will simply ignore the resource! Initial players attempted to mimic library circulation by forcing users to create individual accounts and check out virtual copies of books, which were then unavailable to other users while in use. In an electronic environment where simultaneous use should be possible, this model seems artificial and senseless. Furthermore, vendors must consider the demand for anywhere, anytime use of electronic resources. E-book downloads should be available for external memory device transport and should never be tied to a specific workstation. Again, with the rapid growth of technology, many vendors are offering end users more options and usable interface features. In many cases, libraries can purchase simultaneous user seats without buying additional electronic copies of books and more sophisticated licensing terms may be allaying publisher fears about intellectual property theft translating into greater file portability. The good news is that libraries are at once delivering their message to the communities they serve while persuading publishers and vendors of the need for better deals, better products, and better access to information. The ebrary survey is tacit evidence that corporate content providers are looking to librarians to steer the future of scholarly communication.

E-books have not yet reached their ultimate maturation. There is still room for growth and expansion of products and services, which will accompany the refinement of electronic books. E-books have not become a viable surrogate for the printed book. Portable readers have not gained predicted popularity, yet there may be some promise in the improved displays of cell phones that are integrated with web and document reading capabilities. Users must also come to understand the e-book in its own right, not as a book meant to be read cover-to-cover on a computer monitor or hand-held device, but as a utilitarian information source, equipped with a set of powerful navigation and repurposing tools.

Despite the challenges ahead, the e-book is not destined for the grave of flash-in-the-pan technological casualties of the past. E-books are an integral part of tomorrow’s libraries, and the developing landscape of electronic text, spurred by market competition, individual library digitization projects, and user demand for desktop access, will continue to take rapid and progressive shape.

The Ball State University Libraries are committed to building strong, integrated collections and are engaged in discovering and selecting the best resources for supporting the teaching, learning, and knowledge discovery endeavors of our Ball State students and faculty.

For more information, contact Matthew C. Shaw, Ball State University Libraries’ Electronic Resources Librarian,, (765) 285-1302.


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