eBooks – Implications for Libraries
Copyright 2020, Faulkner Information Services. All
Publication Date: 2003
Report Type: TUTORIAL
Electronic books (eBooks) – which are downloadable in
almost real-time to computer screens, smart phones, tablets, and handheld reading devices
– allow readers to hold
their entire book collection in the palm of their hands. This revolution in
publishing is in-turn causing a revolution in libraries, whether public, research,
academic. Librarians and administrators regularly struggle to identify and manage the
impact of eBooks on their operations, including changes in book selection and
acquisition. This factor is leading to a transformation from the traditional
library into a data center, as well as a shift in the source of physical content. This
tutorial offers an overview regarding the technology as well as considerations
regarding the deployment of an infrastructure for providing access to e-content
- Executive Summary
- Current View
- Web Links
- Related Faulkner Reports
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The era of the eBook (electronic book) – after several failed early attempts
due to clumsy hardware and insufficient content – has seemingly arrived. With books and other reading material
now increasingly available in electronic form, content can now be downloaded in minutes to computer screens, smartphones, tablets, and handheld reading devices such as
the Amazon Kindle or Barnes & Noble’s NOOK.
Related Faulkner Reports
Library Automation Software Overview Tutorial
Nowhere is this publishing revolution more
relevant than in libraries – public, research, and academic – as librarians and
library administrators struggle to identify and fully comprehend the
implications of eBooks on their operations, including:
- eBook selection.
- eBook acquisition.
- Transforming the traditional brick-and-mortar library into a "data
which should not be underestimated, is akin to the e-commerce movement of the
late 1990’s when businesses began planning and implementing the transition from a
physical economy to the now-popular and virtually
indispensable "click-and-mortar" model.
Unfortunately, the act of acquiring licenses for – and providing – eBooks can
be costly, and
budgetary concerns have prevented many libraries from meeting their increasing demand. Libraries must also decide whether to support eBook readers (or e-readers), and if so, which ones to
support. Figure 1 shows the Amazon Kindle.
Figure 1. The Amazon Kindle
While physical books and other hard-copy materials
still dominate library space, libraries are increasingly adopting an e-first
purchased in print form if not available as electronic) or e-only
policy: (new-print titles NOT available in electronic form not purchased).
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A popular view is that eBooks are not just an alternative form of information
delivery, but actually better than conventional books (aka
"treeware"), with advantages1 including:
- Popular titles do not disappear. These include
books such as SAT Prep guides, tax preparation books, and chemical
- eBooks cannot be lost by "misshelving".
- Automatic check-in, checkout, and holds
eliminate clerical tasks required to get books back on the shelves, as
well as processing holds.
- Almost no additional physical space is required to
expand the collection. Academic libraries, in particular, face space
crunches, and weeding is difficult. Corporate libraries are
- Materials for high-demand periods can be easily
- Some collections are better managed as
- Instructional manuals for company products can
be important in providing customer service, without requiring a phone call
or email or maintaining an inventory.
- eBooks enable 24×7 access to critical
information, forming the foundation of a "virtual branch."
- eBooks are often the preferable option to get titles to market in the six-month
window of demand after a new software release.
- eBooks encourage reading among technically savvy young people.
- With features such as such as a text-to-speech
option from ebrary, eBooks can be made more accessible than print books.
Recent Market Statistics
Per 2018 estimates, about 74 percent2 of US citizens have read a
book "in any format" over the past 12 months, with physical books still
technically favored over electronic content, although that gap is continually
shrinking. Still the eBooks segment is valued at approximately $14.4 million
(2020)3, representing an expected CAGR (compound annual growth rate)
of 3.6 percent for the 2020-2024 period. User penetration, meanwhile, is at
about 14 percent, and is projected to grow to 16 percent (2024)
.Figure 2 shows eBook revenue growth through 2024.
Figure 2. eBook Revenue Growth
Table 1 looks at eBook advantages and drawbacks.
Digital Distribution Considerations
Many, if not most, modern libraries are served eBooks through a digital
distribution service – or eBook aggregator – that offers7 a "platform
for librarians to acquire eBook titles from various publishers, governed by the
same pricing model and license agreement." End users, in turn, can search from a range of titles through a single interface. Small-to-medium-sized publishers,
it should be noted, often employ an aggregator due to the cost incurred in developing and maintaining their own
Libraries buy eBooks in two formats:
- Downloadable books from a hosted distributor,
like OverDrive, with check-in, check-out, and on-hold capabilities. Check-out is still based on one book, one reader at a time, though
publishers have relaxed this requirement to allow online previews of
eBooks in the catalog, even though some are checked out. This is the
equivalent of the "Look Inside the Book" feature of Amazon, and is designed
browsing a physical library.
- Book databases accessed online in the same way
as electronic journal databases. The ability to search across the books is
an important feature. Also, multiple users can access the database
at the same time, which is consistent with users needing to search only
sections of books, not entire books.8
There are dozens of eBook distributors and vendors, among them Overdrive, My
Library, Findaway, Odilo, Boopsie, EBSCO, and ProQuest. Probably one of the most prominent eBook aggregators is OverDrive, which offers
millions of digital
titles, principally eBooks and audiobooks, from thousands of publishers. OverDrive provides its library and school clients with customized
download websites – or "virtual branches" – which look and feel like
the clients’ own physical branches. Library patrons experience the
virtual branch as illustrated in Figure 3.
Figure 3. How Patrons Use Their Library-Branded "Virtual Branch"
The advent of eBooks
ushered in new ways of choosing titles. A relatively new selection method
is patron-driven acquisitions, which are offered by multiple eBook
aggregators. This term means a library allows its end users to have access to
a range of titles that match criteria selected by the library. Once a title is
accessed a specified amount of times, it is automatically purchased by the
ProQuest, meanwhile, offers a variety of eBook distribution models:
- Subscription – The library receives simultaneous, multi-user access to a base collection of eBooks in one or multiple subject areas, integrated with the library’s own
digital content, with pricing based on the number of end-users.
- Patron-Driven Acquisition – The library defines which titles are eligible, then
pays only for those titles that patrons request.
- Purchase (Perpetual Archive) – The library purchases single-user access to a title
for the publisher’s list price, or multi-user access for 150 percent of the list
- Short-Term Loan – When a patron requests a title, the library gains access to the title
for 1-7 days, after which the book may be purchased, made eligible for
patron-driven acquisition, or loaned again.
- E-Approvals – The library sets up a profile defining books to be purchased automatically.
SaaS – A publisher or library licenses the ProQuest platform
to distribute its own digital content.
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eBook Penetration in
Most-recent public estimates (2016) identify an eBook presence of::
- 97 percent (academic libraries).10
- 56 percent (K-12 school libraries).11
Working It Out
The digital revolution – the Internet and
eBooks – is changing the library’s traditional compact with information
providers. Unlike their hardcopy counterparts, eBooks are less likely to
get lost or deteriorate over time. Fearing that the reduced need to replace
eBooks could cut into their profits, many eBook publishers decide for financial
reasons to restrict sales to libraries.
Some publishers license
eBooks to libraries but do not allow interlibrary lending.12
Publishers still vary
widely in their pricing and licensing strategies for eBooks. Library Journal found that the most popular acquisition models in US
academic libraries was perpetual access – title by title purchasing – which was preferred by 39
percent of respondents13. The seven most popular acquisition models are shown in Figure 4.
Figure 4. Academic Library Preferred Acquisition Models
Source: Library Journal
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One of the efforts that’s bound to affect
eBooks – and every other aspect of library operations – is the Google Books
initiative. Right now, Google users can search over the full text of millions of
books drawn from libraries and partners (publishers and authors) worldwide:
- The Library
Project – Google has partnered
with prominent libraries around the globe to include their collections in
Google Book Search. For books that are still in copyright, Google
results are like a card catalog; showing info about the book and,
generally, a few snippets of text revealing a particular search term in
context. For books that are out of copyright, Google users can read
and download the entire book.
Partner Program – Google has
also partnered with more than 20,000 publishers and authors to make their
books discoverable on Google. Google users can flip through a few
preview pages of these books, just like they’d browse them at a bookstore
or library. Users also see links to libraries and bookstores where
they can borrow or buy the book.
Among the real-world concerns of librarians
and library administrators is the issue of format standards. In a market
space occupied by Amazon, Apple, Google, and other high-profile providers,
library personnel long for a standard eBook, eBook reader, and eBook
software. Absent a universal solution – as Microsoft provided for the PC
community – a comprehensive set of eBook standards would be especially helpful
in acquiring, deploying, and managing eBook resources. Below are some of the
leading eBook formats. Note that in most cases tools are available to convert
an eBook from one format to another.
- EPUB 3, an
open eBook standard maintained by the International Digital Publishing Forum
(IDPF), is the most common eBook format and the closest there is to an
international standard. EPUB 3 supports fixed layouts as well as displays
adjusted to fit the device (reflowable content), which can help with
readability on small screens. Based on HTML5, a book in the EPUB 3 format can
contain or stream multi-media content and interactive components such as
quizzes and even game-based learning. Engaging multiple senses in this way is
believed to enhance learning. Free and publicly available, EPUB 3 is supported
by almost all the major eReaders, including Apple, Barnes and Noble, Adobe, and
Android devices. It is not supported by the Amazon Kindle.
- MOBI, AZW, and KF8 are formats owned by Amazon that
are supported by the Kindle device. MOBI is an older open standard that
supports both fixed layout and reflowable content. eBooks in the MOBI format
can be highly compressed, and can include advanced navigation controls,
indexing, and dictionaries. Depending on the device, users can even add their
own pages, drawings, and freehand notes to eBooks in the MOBI format. The
format displays best on smaller screens. AZW and KF8 are backwards compatible
with MOBI, and also incorporate Digital Rights Management and many features of
- PDF, an
open standard from Adobe that preserves aspects of a document such as layout,
fonts, and images, is one of the first eBook formats and is widely used.
Numerous tools are available for creating, editing, and securing PDF files,
which can be viewed and printed on almost any platform.
- Blio is a
software platform (available for free download) that preserves typology, page
layout, and illustrations – features especially important for illustrated books
such as children’s books and cookbooks. It also offers an option for Rapid
Serial Visual Presentation, an aid to speed reading.
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Short- and Long-Term IT Plans
The advent of eBooks has
only accelerated a transformation that’s been underway for more than a
decade. While many purists recoil at the notion, today’s library is as
much a data center as a book repository. Audio and video materials –
along with eBooks – require a robust and reliable information technology (IT)
infrastructure. With tight budgets, aggravated by recession-era cutbacks,
library officials should develop a short- and long-term IT plan, with
particular emphasis on high-investment capital purchases, such as PCs and eBook
Owing to their increasing reliance on
information technology, libraries should engage one or more full-time IT
experts who specialize in PC and network support and are capable of resolving
computer problems in real time. These individuals are just as essential
to library operations as research librarians. In addition to hiring
library "techs," library officials should ensure that all patron
support personnel are fully trained in eBook ordering and other IT-related
activities. Many older patrons, for example, may need help using PCs and
The Librarian’s Increasing Value
As digital publishing (including self-publishing) enables more and more books to be produced,
with fewer gatekeepers ensuring minimum quality levels for those books, there is an increasing need
for professionals to help the public discover and obtain the books that are worth reading. The librarian is here to stay.
A Picture Is Worth a Thousand Words
While technology will usually improve over time, certain book types –
atlases, photo essays, etc. – will forever be rendered better in print than
through a computer screen. Consequently, library officials should always reserve
budget space – as well as physical space – for old-fashioned books.
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