Library Today: Electronic Books in the Academic Library

Dan Gjelten

Dan Gjelten

Linda Hulbert

Linda Hulbert

It is hard to avoid news of the growth of the electronic book – between announcements of the latest technologies in e-book readers, we learned recently that Amazon is now selling more e-books than print. (July 2010 more e-books than hardcopy and as of May 2011 more ebooks than paperbacks.)  The percentage of U.S. adults with e-book readers nearly doubled between mid-December and early January, 2012. 

E-books are also making a splash in academic libraries. Nearly all academic libraries now include e-books in their collection and the number of titles is growing rapidly:

  • 95 percent of academic libraries offer e-books
  • From 2009 to 2010 the average number of e-books per library went up 93 percent
  • Most reading of e-books happens on personal computers (72 percent)
  • The preferred format is PDF
  • Reference and scholarly monographs are the primary types of books offered in academic libraries
  • 56 percent of academic libraries report an increase in the use of their e-books
  • Nationwide academic libraries expect to spend nearly 20 percent of their materials budget for e-books. (At this time, the UST Libraries spend about 5 percent of our material budget for e-books.)

While e-books are clearly a rapidly growing phenomenon, they are also very complicated. Comparing digital books to digital music is only partially correct – digital music was primarily a new form of distribution, while digital books can be a fundamental change in the basic reading process. A further complication is the problematic interactions between reader technologies, reading software from numerous providers and the varieties of content contained in books, from text to audio and video.

UST Libraries are quickly developing electronic book collections. This short white paper is intended to shed some light on the complex world of e-books.

What is an e-book? 

Broadly defined, e-books are books delivered electronically, either to a reader (Kindle, Nook, iPad, etc.) or to your computer. UST libraries have purchased more than 100,000 titles in a variety of formats, including:

  • Titles for the libraries’ Kindles
  • Major Reference Works (MRW) now in digital form that used to be in print and housed in the reference areas
  • Titles from a number of vendors: ebrary, EBSCO books and others:
    • These books may be purchased one at a time and are accessed through the library catalog and read on a computer.
    • As selectors identify the titles they want, they must decide whether it will be for one user at a time or for multiple users to read at the same time.  
  • The entire collection of Early American Imprints (17th- and 18th-century primary sources).

The University of St. Thomas libraries own eight Kindles that are available for checkout. We are constantly adding new titles to these devices and the list of what is available can be found here. If you want the library to add something to one of its Kindles, fill out the request form. We bought our first five readers in August 2009 and added three more in August 2010. Since then, they have been checked out nearly 300 times.

Major Reference Works include titles from Gale Virtual Reference, Oxford Reference Online and Blackwell Reference Online. These titles are also in the catalog and many are searchable via our Summon search engine.

The libraries own nearly 115,000 e-books in addition to our Kindle titles, and the collection is growing; however, the use of e-books in the academic library is hindered by publishers who are still working on a pricing model for these titles.

Restricting the use of the book to one user at a time is an option – but in the 21st century that doesn’t make sense. From a technological standpoint, an e-book can easily be used by more than one person at a time – but the publishers then require the library to purchase a multiple-user license for the title, raising the cost substantially. CLIC, our eight-member library consortium, has negotiated an e-book purchasing license that will allow an individual library to buy a title and have it be useable by students and faculty from other schools. We believe this is the best model. As member libraries purchase more e-book content, we want to be able to share these electronic collections with our consortium partners. Since UST borrows more than 20,000 books each year from the other CLIC libraries, if publishers won’t allow us to share them, all of us in CLIC will be affected.

We also have negotiated the right to download some of our ebooks to user’s preferred portable readers. EBSCO e-books are available that way – we are still working with other vendors to obtain the same rights and functionality.

The libraries do not purchase adopted textbooks in any format, and e-texts are no exception; however, we are providing some alternatives via this Library Guide.

Electronic book collections

Beyond the UST Libraries, there is an even larger collection of electronic books – a phenomenal (and rapidly growing) wealth of content available from Project Gutenberg, Google books, and the Hathi Trust.

Project Gutenberg has 36,000 books available for downloading to personal devices. Since they are all in the public domain, there are no copyright restrictions on their use.

Google books is a cooperative initiative by several large academic research libraries, and Google is dedicated to making available full-text and fully searchable online editions of millions of scholarly books.

Hathi Trust is an international partnership of academic and research institutions dedicated to ensuring the preservation and accessibility of the vast record of human knowledge. While the Hathi Trust includes some of the content of Google Books, it also includes other items not chosen for the Google books project; most importantly, Hathi has made the entire content of items still under copyright fully downloadable by their partners. (UST is not a Hathi partner.)

Using Google Books and Hathi Trust search engines allows anyone to do keyword research in the contents of millions of books. While it won’t be possible to download all of those books, many of which are still protected by copyright, retrieving the printed book from the UST libraries or from somewhere else via interlibrary loan is an alternative once it is discovered.

A recent conference paper ("Ebooks, the new normal," Library Journal, 2011) reported that there are several barriers to the use of e-books in academic libraries:

  • Users who are unaware of the availability of e-books and who find them hard to discover
  • Users who prefer print
  • Users who don’t like to read large parts of books online
  • Rights management issues, which make printing and downloading impossible or cumbersome
  • Titles that are not available for download or use on preferred devices
  • Lack of training either given or taken
  • Limited access to reading devices
  • User resistance to new technologies

While some of these barriers probably exist at UST, library staff will continue to monitor developments in the world of electronic books as we work to allocate our budget on the type of content our users want, at the time they want it and in the format they prefer.

If you want to recommend the purchase of any item in any format, this is where you can do it.