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…