Sunday, August 16, 2009

Ebooks, Ebook Readers, Mobile Devices and Academic Libraries-Part 1

Librarians at my university have been closely following developments related to the ebook industry, ebook readers and mobile devices in higher education. The library director and I were recently conversing on this topic via email and the bolded questions below were posed. Discussions on this topic are being held in academic libraries around the globe. My responses to the questions (my best guess, really) are posted here to share with colleagues and others in academic libraries who may want to join in the discussion. Comments welcome.

Will our constituents "soon" be willing to read many of their books on MOBILE DEVICES (meaning cell phones & smartphones)?

I do NOT think reading ebooks on small cell phone devices (non-smartphone type) will have a large following amongst our constituents (and not for most of us in this country, though I understand it's quite popular in Japan and some other countries). Smartphones, on the other hand, (iPhones, Palm Pre, Blackberry, Android devices, etc.) are another story.

I believe that young people (undergraduate students) WILL soon be willing to read many books on quality smartphone devices. For many undergrads there is a compelling convenience factor. Students are mobile and most always have their smartphone device with them. During a spare moment they can easily fit in some reading. However, I also think reading on a larger computer or reader device and print reading will continue as well for some time for all age groups. Older graduate students and faculty, I suspect, would be less willing to read many of their books on current smartphone devices.

Many baby boomers, like myself, might choose to read ebooks occasionally on their current smartphone devices. For example, I have downloaded a couple of ebooks (using stanza and the kindle iPhone app) so that if I'm ever stuck somewhere and have to wait for whatever reason I can pull out my iPhone and read a chapter of an ebook. I don't do this often and instead usually choose to read a NYTimes article on my NYTimes iPhone app. I would never choose to pull out my current iPhone to read an ebook if I was home and had access to a larger device for reading or my laptop (simply too hard on aging eyes).

Will our constituents "soon" be reading most of their books on any electronic device (in this I include Kindle, the new Mac netbook, etc., etc.)?

That depends on what is meant by "soon." If it means within the next 12 months, I would guess that our constituents will NOT be reading "most" (but possibly many) of their books on an electronic device. And I also doubt "most" academic books will be available in electronic format within the next 12 months (that partly depends on publishers and effective cost models, etc. and it's complicated as this article explains).

My guess would be that within two-three years many, and possibly the majority, of undergrads, grads and faculty will be reading most of their academic books (textbooks and monographs) on an electronic device of some kind (it really depends on how quickly some of the technology is brought to market and the availability of academic books in ebook format).

One of our grad student recently shared with me that in her undergraduate program at another university, which she finished almost a year ago, all of her textbooks were provided for each class in electronic format. Students in her program were required to pay a flat $75 book fee for each class in which they enrolled and the books were delivered electronically. That practice, if widely adopted, could significantly propel ebook use forward.

Will our constituents still prefer reading books in print (paper) format but likely will accept/prefer books on demand (printed from electronic)?

I think there will be a continued demand for print books (how much that will decrease due to ebooks, I'm not sure). I'm not very familiar with books on demand, and may not know enough to really answer this properly. I looked into books on demand/print on demand while working for one year at a public library a few years ago. I recently took a quick look at more recent information on this topic. NPR has a good broadcast available (transcript and podcast) titled "Company's 'ATM For Books' Prints On Demand."

The company, On Demand Books, makes a remarkable claim on their site. I've also read many articles and posts regarding ebooks and the coming revolution. Time will tell, but for academic books it seems ebooks make more sense (easier to search, annotate, hyperlinks in some cases, etc.). The makers of the Espresso book machines point out that print is still widely more popular than electronic and of course that is true at the moment. However, I believe that could and is rapidly changing (even with the industry challenges).

Will most academic books (even copyrighted) really be available as a download either free or at a very low cost (5 to 10 dollars each) "soon?"

I don't know this answer. Although if "soon" means within the next 12 months my guess would be, no. I think if things continue to move forward as they have in the last year, and effective cost models are brokered (which I believe will happen but, again, timing is difficult), that we will then see most academic books available electronically. (I don't know enough about free or low cost academic ebooks to comment on price.)

How will any or all of the above impact us as a library, and our collection development?

Heh, the answer to that question is a book of its own (or maybe a giant collaborative wiki :) ). I don't think any one person or organization has the answers at this time. Things are evolving and we will have to wait and see what happens with digitization projects, what types of devices hit the market within the next 12 months, what develops related to copyright and DRM, what other new technologies develop, and so much more. I am glad these questions are being asked by academic libraries globally. Many organizations are taking serious steps to discuss and debate the future of libraries as I shared in my prior post "Libraries of the Future" (see video)

I believe ebooks will become an increasingly important part of academic library collections. From a 2008 Springer survey:
eBooks are particularly effective when doing research because they are "convenient, easily accessible" and they offer "enhanced functions" when compared with traditional printed literature. In addition to the fact that no storage space is required, the eBook (because it is electronic) it is easily searchable and for research this fact is key.

Part 2 will include videos of current and future technologies that could add to the appeal of ebooks in academic libraries.

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