Who Is Reading Your E-Books?

Who is reading your library’s ebooks? According to Dan D’Agostino, nobody. Yikes! 

In his post, The strange case of academic libraries and e-books nobody reads, “Instead of focusing on books downloadable to e-readers or smart phones, academic libraries have created enormous databases of e-books that students and faculty members can be read only on computer screens. The result, as shown by studies like the JISC national ebooks observatory project, is that these collections are used almost exclusively for searching for information—scanning rather than reading.”

Dan goes on to wonder if academic libraries will find themselves and their e-book collections obsolete because students and faculty are bypassing them.  He says academic libraries are in this potentially damaging situation due to publishing monopolies (his First Law of the Scholarly Publishing Universe), aggregated collections (his Second Law), as symbiotic relationship libraries and digital publishers, and finally the emergence of e-readers and mobile devices.

I am not sure I agree with the reasons he gives for the a problem.  I think these things are more noticeable in academic libraries that must collect resources in multiple subjects and disciplines.  Medical libraries have a certain luxury in that our entire collection is one general discipline, medicine.  Sure we have subtopics like nursing, cardiology, obstetrics, pediatrics, etc. but at least our entire collection can relate to each other and have a common thread.  It isn’t like we are collecting poly sci, engineering, theology, and business resources together.

When I look at e-books and the way the libraries I have worked for have purchased them, I see a perhaps different rational than how many academic librarians may have purchased theirs.  Or at least the way I see Dan describe how academic libraries purchase ebooks.  In the medical libraries I have worked in we have really only purchased online books that we have on reserve.  Books like Harrison’s Principles of Internal Medicine, Danforth’s Obstetrics, Mandell’s Infectious Disease, etc.  Our users refer to these texts when they need to look up something or answer a question. 

Our users were consulting these texts just like the studies Dan refers to that indicate readers will not read extended pieces of text on computer screens and would use e-book collections simply for searching, not reading.  Well duh.  That is what they do with e-journal articles too.  But the thing to note is that our people also did similar things with print reference books.  The printed version of these books are generally large heavy textbooks that people consult, but rarely read straight through.  In the old days (pre online books) people took the book to the copy room and copied the chapter or tid bit of information.  How is printing the chapter of an ebook different from copying it from the bound version?  To me both versions represent similar library use, the technology differs.

We also use the digital version of these textbooks as a method to provide access to core library materials to users when we are closed and when the user is off campus (and physically cannot come to the library to read or photocopy the chapter).  Hospital and medical libraries have a lot of virtual users.  Some of these users are half way across town in their office practice, while others are closer but find it easier to use the library online.

Our ebook statistics continue to rise.  In the libraries I have worked for, our ebook usage stats were never close to our ejournal usage stats.  However, I would guess that in the print days there were more people photocopying  journal articles than chapters too.

Bundling is the nature of the beast.  (I am not saying it is right or wrong) but there if you are complaining about the bundling of ebooks, the bundling of ejournals is just as ugly.  Yet I would venture to say that your ugly ejournal bundle is probably getting better usage stats than your ebooks package, because it follows the pattern of how books and journals are read and used. Dan is right, people do not read books on big computer screen.  They will browse and print out chapters or sections but they won’t sit down and read.  So why on earth why would you actively buy a large collection of ebooks that are not reference type books? 

Which brings me to e-readers and mobile devices.  I have no earthly idea if these will take off in the medical world.  Right now there aren’t a lot of titles (compared to the titles that a public library or academic library would collect) for medical libraries.  Pocket guides, USMLE books and smaller (less textbook-ish) medical books that people often check out to read might do well in Kindle or mobile format.  It would be interesting to see if people treat ebooks that are reference and ejournals similarly on the e-readers as the pocket guide or “readable” books. Or will people will people look for a way to ‘print them out,” like they do now. 

Keep your expectations with ebooks in line with reality both in usage patterns and overall usage statistics.  Watch your usage statistics, keep your eyes and ears open for what is working and what isn’t.  Just like with bound books, your reference collection and your circulating collections are going to be used differently.

5 thoughts on “Who Is Reading Your E-Books?”

  1. The key is definitely finding the right e-Book for the needs of your patrons. Ours are very well used. Mind you I continually watch stats and evaluate them yearly and make adjustments, but over all as we continue to teach and show folks these books, they are getting used very well.

    I also know that they are read, but the huge advantage is they are available to everyone at any of our locations 24/7.

    Another thing to keep in mind is the different interfaces (vendors) our patrons like the ability to share with colleagues easily or even email themselves sections for later use. Open URL is a huge advantage in e-Books.

  2. What a timely and interesting post. No one but me seems to be reading mine at my hospital library.

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