Ebooks: an epiphany

I’ve been having something of an epiphany lately in response to the brave new(ish) dawn of ebooks. Despite being a ‘switched-on, social media-using, tech-savvy, go-getting librarian’ I’ve never been that excited by them and until this year resolutely refused to sit on committees or advisory boards to discuss their adoption and value. I gave in because finally there were some electronically available versions of key textbooks that students actually wanted to use (rather than just dodgy packages full of titles that publishers couldn’t shift) and I was starting to spend some of my budget on them (although only around 5k per annum).  Joining the Cambridge University ebooks advisory committee has prompted me to think more strategically and clearly about the format and where we might be headed. It’s also encouraged me to ascertain in more detail where my users are at with ebooks. And what I have discovered has been fascinating…

Although overall use of ebooks has gone up across the University, and conversely circulation of print books continues to fall, many users are still resisting e format. No surprise there, but what is surprising is that they are starting to resist in greater numbers.  In 2011, 74% of of respondents to our annual Information & Library Services survey stated that they used ebooks, in 2012 this has dropped to 61%. The 39% of respondents who stated they are not using them cited that: they do not like reading on screen (these made up the majority); they wanted to mark passages; there were device incompatibility issues; they ended up printing them and that they were therefore more expensive for them to use; they are not as portable or accesible as they need to be; and that ebooks were simply not a ‘fit’ for the way they work. A few weeks ago I tweeted a parallel stat from Forrester research that showed that in 2011 46% of publishers considered  iPads and similar tablets to be the ideal e-reading platform, in 2012 this stat has dropped to just 31%.

From a personal point of view, with my writer/researcher hat on, I know I find ‘e-only research’ a bit of a nightmare. Despite being a technically able chap I find alt-tabbing between e-resources  and keeping a multitude of different windows open is much less preferable to being surrounded by printed AND e-resources.  I want both and I think in the main so do our students and academics.

And yet all too often, when ebooks and printed books are discussed,  an ‘either/or’ mentality creeps into the frame unbidden. This is somewhat inevitable in the current climate as senior managers of University libraries and the even more senior people leaning on them desperately seek to find a way to cut costs. But do ebooks really cut costs? They might in the short-term but as soon as we reach the point at which we’re all buying e in preference to print, you can bet your bottom dollar that publishers will increase ebook prices in order to maintain their revenue streams. And who can blame them? And what of the user while decisions are being made simply in order to cut costs? What of their experience? Of their preferred ways of working? Of their need for print and electronic?

For the last two years I’ve had a policy whereby my team will look for and then purchase an ebook in the first instance rather than a printed book. However thus far we have only been able to purchase 31% of our high demand titles as ebooks. And of those that we do have, only 30% of the titles are used and on average only for enough time to read one or two pages or to print out a page range. In short, with the exception perhaps of our remote executive students, ebooks are being accessed but they’re not necessarily being read.

There are a myriad of other problems surrounding ebooks, not least the expectation that some of our incoming students have that they will be able to access them all on their Kindles. Device and platform compatibility is a whole other ball game. What also of student disabilities? Ebooks are ‘no-go’ for dyslexic students for instance. There have also been some recent ‘contrary studies‘ in Cambridge which have shown that use of some printed titles has gone up despite availability of e-alternatvies. Many users in our survey also made a distinction between work and pleasure: they are happy to read fiction on their Kindle but much less keen to read academic texts electronically. I could go on. At length.

So where does all the above leave us? For me at a point where I honestly don’t think I can ignore user feedback any longer. I will encourage my team to still check for e first and to buy it, but I’ll now be choosing to supplement that purchase with one or two printed books.

Maybe, just maybe, print is not dead yet. But if it does die, due to lack of foresight or economic pressures, then I suddenly feel sure it will eventually return, but first I’m very afraid we all have to get completely fed up of spending our whole lives exclusively staring at screens through our spectacles. (I note however, that the much vaunted death of the printed book has been happening for quite some time now, as the image on the left attests.)

A final word from Newsweek, whose excellent poster sums up my feelings about the currently raging format war perfectly…

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6 thoughts on “Ebooks: an epiphany

  1. Interesting post, especially to one such as myself who is fairly naive about actual ebook consumption.

    Two things struck me, firstly your comment about having e and print resources to hand whilst researching. I think is is pretty much the case for ejournals articles for many, the serious reading is done with a locally made print-out. The PDF or HTML version in a browser has a whole set of other use cases, namely quick skimming, searching for citations and copying and pasting quotes. This is my working practice and fits an observation of others around libraries, but its the kind of thing that probably needs some ‘in-depth anthropologist over your shoulder’ type of research to confirm.

    The two use cases are pretty complimentary, and it may be that the the best service can be provided by the two in unison, as you are doing. That will also be the most expensive though. Getting academic publisher content onto useful handheld devices may help.

    The second thing was the 30% actually used figure, which is pretty low and a bit depressing. I wonder if this is a discovery issue, especially as thats’ at least partly my responsibility. We need to work on getting better and cheaper data out of of publishers for local catalogues. Webscale indexes that cover the full text of an ebook may also be of use, especially if they can also present local print book collections. The complexities of access to resources do probably not help.

  2. Thanks for the comment Ed and some good points.

    Who is to say going e-only won’t be more expensive when and if we’re tied into that. One thing I didn’t mention was my concern about ebook aggregators eventually having us over a barrel just like the ejournal suppliers do now.

    Complexity of access is definitely an issue too, but to give you another stat from my survey, in response to a question about likes and dislikes of ebooks 57% of respondents selected ‘I don’t like reading on screen’ while only 14% cited ‘access’ issues.

  3. Sounds like a really useful survey & as it is in a University context where students are fairly e-literate it is a strong indicator that e-books haven’t ‘made it’ yet

  4. Thanks for this post. I attended a workshop today to discuss the pros and cons of using ebooks in school libraries and your findings provide a useful different perspective that I think is highly relevant to sixth formers’ use of ebooks in particular. Could you elaborate a bit on your statement that “ebooks are no-go for dyslexic students”, as I was under the impression that the opposite is true.

  5. Re the resistance to reading on-screen, I am completely in sympathy with that. Yet I wonder if we shouldn’t do more to try and help students make the transition – show them how to make notes, highlight, search across text etc. so they can see the benefits (if the supplier allows such things of course). This means we also have to know how to do these things… All we do at the moment is just point out to access them and leave it there.

    As I can vouch, having just finished my first fiction e-book (I never EVER thought I’d say that!), it’s all about forcing yourself to try it out and getting used to a new environment. Then you can really see some of the benefits.

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