Many academic librarians today have very ambitious goals to provide their users with effective access to e-books. E-books, it is recognised, can give researchers and students the information they need whenever they need it and wherever they are.
Realising that ambition, though, is not without significant technological challenges and cost implications. How are these challenges being overcome and what are the benefits and impact of e-books in the academic context?
A new book, E-books in education: realising the vision, brings together the experiences of colleagues in universities and colleges across the UK, describing how managers, teachers and librarians are encouraging the use of e-books and why they can be an important asset for institutions, academics and students.
A world without printed books?
As the Higher Education Funding Council for England’s (HEFCE’s) chief executive Madeleine Atkins mentions in her foreword, one new university in Florida has a library without a single printed book. Many established academic libraries wouldn’t want to go that far, but there are powerful reasons why they might want to deploy e-books in the context of a larger goal to reduce their reliance on print and offer a better service to students.
Librarians and lecturers recognise that the ready availability of e-books can help students access the books they really want to read, not just the ones that are left on the shelf when everyone is slaving to meet an important deadline. Moreover, e-books live in the online space where students spend very large amounts of time, so it can be easier for them to find their books, to use them at a time and in a place of their own choosing, and to integrate them with their other online activities and tools.
New library purchasing models
The advent of e-books has also opened up the potential for new book purchasing models for institutions.
Philip Gee, from the University of Plymouth describes – in the book’s case studies section – how Plymouth has taken the practice of negotiating publishers’ discounts for recommended books to a new level. Working in Plymouth’s psychology department, he negotiated with publishers to provide core texts in the form of free e-books to every student on the course.
New library purchasing models, such as patron-driven acquisition (PDA), are cited as having the potential to extend the scope of materials available to students and teachers. By this model, a large set of e-book titles can be made available to institutions but the purchase of individual e-books is triggered only when usage reaches a certain agreed level.
As Christine Fyfe at the University of Leicester says, PDA models have the potential to
“maximise the chance that the reader will find and access what they want immediately”.
Elsewhere in the book, there are examples of the ways in which e-books are being embedded within other institutional systems such as Virtual Learning Environments (VLEs) and library management systems.
For distance learners, e-books can be especially useful – as a team from Coleg Sir Gâr, a further education college in south Wales, suggests in its own case study. A multi-site institution with a high proportion of distance learners, the college has developed a bilingual library app that, by enabling easy access to e-books across a range of devices, effectively takes the library to users wherever they are.
Underpinning institutional ambitions
Some institutions see, in the development of e-books, the opportunity to explore new directions for themselves – in particular, to test the waters as publishers in their own right. Take the example offered by the University of St Andrews. In partnership with the St Andrews Centre for French History and Culture the university library has produced a series of ‘midigraphs’. These are shorter, fully peer reviewed monographs that are available digitally in open access via the university repository and in a limited edition free print run.
Of course, e-books present a wide range of challenges as well as opportunities. In her foreword, Madeleine Atkins cites functionality, curation and access in particular. But the views from the academic contributors to this book are generally overwhelmingly positive. As Atkins says,
“Throughout this publication the inventiveness and perspicacity shown by academics and librarians to deliver improvements to education by embracing the opportunities of e-books are striking.”
Do please take a look at the book. I will appreciate hearing your thoughts on it and also your own experiences with e-books.