Category Archives: Books

Ebooks Are not Electronic Journals

As a physical science librarian I know journals are the primary form of scholarly communication in the sciences. While the particle physicists have arXiv and some of the cool-kids will tout non-traditional knowledge transfer though social media, my chemists use journals and are pretty comfortable with that. Of course, electronic journals are greatly preferred – it’s easy to print and you can grab articles off the web and file them away for the rest of your career. No photocopying or waiting – and your graduate students can practically live in the lab.

This shouldn’t be news to any academic librarian (really, it shouldn’t be). But what might be news is the same scientists are not nearly as interested in ebooks. Ebooks take a text, put it online and allow scientists to access the information utilizing an Internet browser. So why have I had users asking me to purchase physical copies of ebooks in our collection?

Some of the problem is platform – by which I mean Ebrary. Most scientists don’t read articles online; they download them, print them, and then read. Most of the science monographs I purchase are edited works on a topic and each chapter is, effectively, like a journal article in terms of length and topic coverage. Ebrary presents the electronic text as a book and only allows users to download 60 pages as a PDF. This is a problem if you want a large review article or more than one chapter; then the ebook is suddenly less useful then a print book, because you can’t even copy it. When I polled my faculty earlier this year, some said they always prefer ebooks. But among those who conditionally preferred an ebook, all of them preferred chapters arranged as PDFs with unlimited downloads. The actual ebook – an electronic text meant to be viewed only on a screen – has very little support. So Ebrary is the main option I have for purchasing ebooks, but my patrons like Ebrary’s model the least.

Another platform problem is viewing platform; not everyone has a dedicated electronic reader to make ebooks pleasant and even if you have one, it may be a hassle to view. Ebrary for Kindles and iPads require additional software, but hey – it’s only a 14-16 step process. Without a tablet of some sort, you’re stuck with a laptop screen that cannot comfortably view a whole page at once or a desktop monitor that may be ill suited to reading. My real issue with the variety of experience ebooks provide is it makes your collection decisions inherently classist – your patrons with the wealth to afford a nice tablet have a better experience than your less privileged patrons. Print books have downsides, but using them doesn’t inherently reinforce inequality.

So as beloved as electronic journal are, I just cannot say the same for the ebook. And until the vendor platform offers ebooks my patrons want, I can’t say I’ll be buying many.

The end of the book as we know it, and I feel (mostly) fine.

I’m packing for an upcoming vacation and assembling my reading material. In addition to a backlog of unread New Yorkers, I’ll bring novels (mostly new fantasy and speculative fiction) that will keep me company in airports and at the lake. I’m trying to spend as little money as possible, and so I’m gathering Kindle books borrowed from friends, Kindle and ePub books borrowed from our local public library, and one eagerly awaited 561-page print book from my library’s collection.

As a librarian, I’m comfortable navigating the library eBook universe (or is it a minefield? asteroid belt? black hole?) for personal reading. Not all of our patrons find it easy, and not all libraries can make eBooks available to the extent that they would like. The subject inspires great pride in libraries, prejudice against publishers, common sense, and passionate sensibility –

  • In June, the Pew Internet and American Life Project reported that 12% of Americans who read (and what percentage of all Americans is that?) have borrowed ebooks from their public libraries, but half of those surveyed didn’t know that libraries offered that service. Those who do borrow ebooks from public libraries report frustration – with limited selection, long waits, and incompatible formats. If more patrons are going to use ebook lending services, we’ll have to have better relationships with publishers, and more titles and formats available.
  • New York Times financial columnist Ann Carrns describes her experience trying to save money by borrowing ebooks from her local library. She reports many of the same frustrations as the subjects in the Pew survey, but had more success when she stopped searching her library’s ebook collection for known items and instead browsed what titles were available. (I have also found this a great way to discover new authors, if you have patience to wade through the dross.)
  • Patrons are frustrated because, according to Barbara Fister, “large trade publishers think sharing is a bug, not a feature.” Ebook publishing models don’t value the culture of collaboration and cooperation that libraries are built upon. Academic libraries may have a slight advantage here, since we tend to work with academic and nonprofit publishers, who, like scholars, “think sharing is pretty much the point of publishing.”
  • Are we better off with ebooks or without them? Librarian in Black thinks we should break up with ebooks, because they are a bad boyfriend: “Libraries and eBooks aren’t shacking up anytime soon, not for real…not as long as publishers continue to falsely view us as a threat instead of a partner.” In contrast, Steven Harris argues that our relationship with print books is just as dysfunctional and codependent.
  • Is this the end of the book as we know it? Or do ebooks represent reading’s future? Speculative fiction has always contemplated the death of the book, according to English professor Leah Price, but “what [writers] never seem to have imagined was that the libraries housing those dying volumes might themselves disappear.” Let’s hope they’re right.

Georgia State E-reserves Case Roundup

Last Friday the Judge finally handed down a decision in the Georgia State University e-reserves case, a year after the trial and three years after the suit was brought by academic publishers SAGE, Cambridge University Press, and Oxford University Press. These publishers sued GSU for allowing faculty to upload course readings excerpted from books to the university’s course management system, alleging that the university had gone beyond the accepted guidelines for fair use.

It’s only Monday morning but there’s already been loads of commentary on the decision, a PDF of which was posted online late Friday by Nancy Sims, Copyright Program Librarian at the University of Minnesota. It seems that on balance the decision favors GSU and libraries: copyright violation was found in only 5 of the 99 instances of uploading course readings. I’m sure there will be more coming on this case, as neither GSU nor the plaintiffs have released comments on the decision. But here are some great articles to get you started considering this case and its potential effects on academic libraries:

The Ebook of My Dreams

We all have our frustrations with ebooks. The problem isn’t just one of print vs electronic or Luddite vs early adopter. Even as I happily consume Kindle books on my iPad and the new Project Muse collection for work, I find that ebooks simply don’t do the things I want them to do – the things the electronic format seems to promise. In an ideal world, what would ebooks do that would make them not a substitute for print books, but better than print books? What features would make ebooks represent a true new step in the evolution of information delivery systems? Here’s what I’d like to see :

Interoperability: Ebooks need to take advantage of the spatial navigability of the electronic environment. For example, the index should not exist separately as an additional PDF file, as many ebook indexes do. Instead, I should be able to click on an entry in the index (say, “deckchairs, rearrangement of”) and be linked to the place(s) in the text where that topic is discussed. With endnotes, it’s frustrating to flip to the end, especially when it’s just a bibliographic citation. Can you give me the information without taking me away from the text? Can I mouse-over and get the information in a pop-up window? How much more work would it take to link up index entries and notes? How much more of an intellectual payoff would we get?

Intertextuality: Does the book cite other books? Journal articles? Blogs? Websites? Well, connect me – not just to bibliographic information that I can port into a link resolver and then cross my fingers. Take me there: right to the page that the author discusses. Make the connectivity that we expect on the web a standard feature of ebooks. Is there an allusion to some other text? Identify the allusion and give me the option of linking to it. But also give me the option of turning off all of the annotations — sometimes I just want to read without interruption. Especially if I’m reading James Joyce.

Sharing: Hey, I just read this great essay in that new collection – it would really help with that project we’re working on. Want to borrow my copy with all my notes?  Great, and you can add your annotations too. When we’re done with work, want to borrow this great new novel I just finished reading? Oh, sorry, I read it on my Kindle. You’ll have to pay $9.99 too.

Device Neutrality: You have a Nook instead of a Kindle? No problem! You don’t have a device at all and you need to borrow one? Sure! You need to put the book on reserve, or use it on your laptop? Be our guest! But most of all, you don’t want to have to download an app just to read a book. Well, neither do I, and in my flying-car, jet-pack, futuristic fantasy world of ebooks, we don’t need to.

Curating: As a bibliographer, I need to acquire for my library the information that will support the research and teaching needs of the faculty and students on my campus. I don’t want a package that has been created by a vendor speculating about the needs of liberal-arts college library collections. I want to buy ebooks for my library just like I buy print books — some on approval, some as firm orders, some through patron-driven acquisitions, some because a new professor has been hired in that subject area, and some because they belong in a collection of record. I don’t want to be told that I can’t have an ebook in my collection because my vendor’s conglomerate competes with its publisher’s conglomerate. If two print books sit happily next to each other on a physical shelf, why can’t they coexist on a virtual shelf?

Can we also decide: eBook? e-book? ebook?

Yes, some of these features do exist already, often as standalone apps. Many of these are features we’ve come to expect from ejournal (eJournal? e-journal?) environments. What ebook features do you dream about?

The Trouble With Books

Last week I had the opportunity to participate in a conversation with faculty in the library and in other academic departments about undergraduate research assignments. We discussed some of the stumbling blocks that our students seem to face, especially as they search for sources for their papers. It’s hard for us to put ourselves back into the novice mindset that our students have, particularly in their first and second year at college, in which they’re not (yet) familiar with the disciplines. We don’t want them to use Wikipedia or other encyclopedias (which may become increasingly scarce?) as research sources, though for background information they’re great. But many students are just not ready to tackle the scholarly research articles that they’ll find when they search JSTOR or even Academic Search Complete.

More and more often I’m convinced that our beginning undergraduates need to use books for their research assignments. Books can bridge that gap between very general and very scholarly that is difficult to find in a journal article. They often cover a broad subject in smaller chunks (i.e., chapters), and can provide a good model for narrowing a topic into one that’s manageable for a short research assignments. Books can also help students exercise the muscles that they need for better internet and database searching as they mine chapter titles and the index for keywords. I’ve begun to push books much more vocally in my instruction sessions for these very reasons.

However, books come with stumbling blocks, too. Ideally students could search our library catalog and find the books they need for their assignments right on our shelves. We have a collection that serves our students’ needs well, I think, especially in the degree programs. But we are a physically small library, and it’s difficult for us to build a book collection to serve the general needs students have in English Composition I courses, for example. While some of those sections focus on New York City or Brooklyn in their reading and research, in other sections students can choose their own topic, or the faculty member picks a topic of interest which may change from semester to semester. It’s difficult to keep up with these changing topics and, though all of those classes come to the library for an instruction session, we often don’t know which topics students select unless they stop by the Reference Desk to ask for help with their research.

My college is part of a university in which all of the libraries circulate books in common, as do many academic and public library systems. Students (and faculty/staff) can have books delivered between the colleges in just a few days, and we encourage students to take advantage of this service when they’re hunting for sources on their research topics. But sometimes students aren’t doing their research far enough in advance to accommodate the time required to have a book delivered, and, while they can also visit the other colleges’ libraries in libraries in person, they may not have the time for that, either.

What about ebooks? Ebooks can help bridge the just-in-time gap, though they are not without their own issues: subscriptions to ebook packages that may shift the titles available over time, confusing requirements for reading or downloading on mobile devices, variable rules about what can or cannot be printed, etc. And while all of the ebooks we offer in our library can be read on a desktop computer, of course we can’t always accommodate all students who want to use a computer in the library.

So I’m left wondering: how can we get more (and more relevant) books into the hands of our beginning students? And, barring that, are there other resources that cover that middle ground between the general knowledge of encyclopedic sources and the specific, often too advanced, scholarly research of journal articles?