Critical Mass

Adventures in E-Reading: Guest Post from Harriett Green

By Harriett Green

Here is the latest in our second series of guest posts on the next decade in book culture here (read the first  here). Our question: How are you handling the rise of the e-book? Are you reading on Kindle, the Sony Reader, the Vook, have you reserved an iPad?  Are you buying e-books? Reading e-galleys? And how's it working out for you? Let us know your quibbles, quirks, happy and not so happy adventures in e-reading. Harriett Green, English and Digital Humanties Librarian at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign shared these thoughts on the library and e0books at the NBCC “Rise of the E-Book” panel  at the Early Spring Literary Festival at the University of Illinois,Champaign-Urbana.

University academia and ebooks have a strong but rather complicated relationship–together they make a decent cake, but a key ingredient or two is still missing for a  Ace of Cakes masterpiece. At the University of Illinois Library, as at many (if not most) academic libraries, we are building an extensive and expanding collection of ebooks.  In fact, it’s now to the point where we must weigh the benefits of print text versus an ebook or electronic resource, and this decision will only become more prominent as time goes on. But what are the challenges and benefits we face as libraries?

To take the University of Illinois Library as an example, our collection currently holds over 400,000 ebooks.  The vast bulk of the ebooks are PDFs delivered through the Web and are from a mix of publishers such as Springer, Wiley, NetLibrary, Safari and Gale Cengage. The largest number of our ebooks are actually in the humanities, because we count the digitized texts in Early English Books Online and Eighteenth Century Collections Online databases. But the largest number of publisher-derived ebooks are in the sciences.

Our goal is to expose the ebooks and promote their access as much as possible:  Within our library tools, we’ve added them to our Easy Search tool on the front page of our Library Gateway, the  titles have records in our online library catalog, and are listed in our  local e-resources database. But our ebooks also appear in search results in Google Books, in Google Scholar, in databases such as Engineering Village, and other search venues.

But notably, the University of Illinois Library does not have Kindles, Sony Readers, and other such e-readers. Why? For one, the University administration determin that e-readers were not yet ADA compliant and vetoed them from the Library on those grounds.  Moreover, the management of ereaders in libraries is relatively complex and can require a significant investment of resources: The library must lock down the ereaders so that A) DRM-protected content isn't illegally disseminated  among multiple users; and B) a user won't download new digital content, because then they most likely will have to delete their book because it again cannot be used with multiple users nor transferred from the device.  Moreover, ereaders are far more similar to loanable equipment like laptops, because the library cannot straightforwardly manage the content as with books and other collection materials.   Nevertheless, several university libraries have piloted Kindles and Sony Readers with limited success, and in light of these studies and our experiences, I see a couple specific things to consider about ebooks in the academic setting:

First of all, what is the usage:  In 2007, the library saw 26,705 downloads of Springer ebook chapters for the entire year; fast forward to 2009, where we saw 166,703 downloads of Springer ebook chapters for the total year and 23,043 in January 2010 alone.  In Wendy Shelburne's “E-book usage in an academic library: User attitudes and behaviors,”  her survey of the entire 47,000-person campus revealed that 57% of the respondents used ebooks, with the vast majority using them for research.  Some of the benefits cited includes instant access from anywhere, portability, keyword searchability, and environmental friendliness. But disadvantages cited by both those who used and didn't use ebooks included difficulty reading the screen, trouble navigating to pages. Locating and searching for materials, and DRM.  The majority of respondents said that they would use both print and electronic books, and preferred print books for ease of use and for reading a book cover-to-cover.  These same benefits and concerns were voiced in Princeton University's pilot study of the Kindle DX ( while the 51 students in the pilot liked the portability, consolidation of their readings, and the searchability of the pre-loaded texts on their ereaders, the not insignificant difficulties ranged from the inability to annotate the text for study, to difficulty in navigating the ebooks and “flipping through the pages,” to poor conversion of PDFs into ebooks for Kindle.  Penn State's experience with the Sony Reader  for both academic and popular use was similar ( they had to enact a complex system for locking down the Sony Readers.

Another aspect to consider is access: first of all, getting an ebook to a user is far faster than a regular book: for an ebook we simply upload the record in the catalog and place links to the book in the appropriate places in the catalog and e-resources database; but regular books must be shipped, cataloged, and shelved before ever seeing the light of day. 

University of Illinois offers ebooks in several different platforms, ranging from downloadable PDFs to platforms where the user can browse scanned pages from the actual book to HTML text.  Students are highly adaptable to each platform, but we prefer PDFs because they can be previewed and read on multiple devices.

We also see that publishers are trying to determine how to create and market ebooks most effectively–whether in packaged collections of ebooks, a hybrid of the print and digital product, among others–and some places have it figured out much better than others.  But ebooks pose a challenge for everyone: publishers in delivering the content, libraries in dissiminating the content, and students and faculty in how to use the ebooks.  One thing is for sure:  as students and  faculty become more mobile and dispersed in their work and home environments, we want to provide them with the best array of resources and research tools that they can access wherever they are and whenever they need it.