To ‘e’ or not to ‘e’: solving the ebook equation

Over 60 people gathered at the SALIN ebook forum on 24th of July to discuss the recent explosion in ebook usage and the impacts for libraries. Presenters from the academic, public and school library sectors gave insight into three very different experiences.

Jennifer Quilliam – Manager, Information Resources and Technology, University of South Australia

Jenny outlined UniSA’s current digital strategy to unlock information access for teaching, learning and research. The strategy focuses on an increased preference for digital resources. This is not only driven by the need to provide timely and remote access to resources for students and staff, but to reduce the space of the physical collection in anticipation of the move to new premises which requires the collection be reduced from 170,000 items to 100,000. With a large component of physical resources being moved off site into storage facilities, the new collection development strategy is to become “as ‘e’ as possible”.

Ebooks are purchased through a variety of large vendors such as EBSCOHost, and are prompted by patron requests, use of aggregate collections, publisher subject collections (which are DRM free) and item replacement activities. While in 2009 and 2010 purchase of ebooks was significantly lower than physical books, figures were more even in 2011, with ebooks slightly ahead. So far in 2012, ebook acquisitions outnumber physical books by 6 to 1.

A very interesting aspect of Jenny’s presentation detailed the training provided to staff to support them in dealing with ebook requests and user queries. This aspect of technology implementation can often be overlooked, so it was wonderful to hear how UniSA have created a program for staff to grow their understanding, awareness and confidence in ebook technology.

While 81% of staff had used ebooks, many had no experience or confidence in other aspects such as downloading content, ebook formats, digital rights management, or copying and pasting from ebooks. The training program instigated by UniSA was called ‘I promise ebooks won’t bite’ and was a self-directed plan designed to enable library staff to be more comfortable using ebooks and answering queries about their use. The training was successful in increasing staff confidence and also highlighted some issues and challenges ebook access presents.

More details can be found in Jenny’s presentation

Jason Forrest – English/Literacy Coordinator, Henley High School

Henley High has been receiving high media coverage lately for its move towards a virtual library for students. After losing their library staff and being hit by funding cuts, Jason introduced the virtual library with the aim of continuing, and increasing, access to literature for students. He spent time speaking to other schools, researching platforms (they eventually went with Overdrive) and speaking to teacher-librarians about content, coverage and usability of these platforms.

Despite what has been reported in the media, Henley High has not disposed of all their physical books. A large number were simply redistributed to specific learning areas within the school to increase their usage, e.g. teen fiction to the middle school, teacher reference material now resides in the appropriate study hub. The virtual library coexists with these physical collections of textbooks and fiction. Of the remaining books, data collected revealed they were low use titles and thus they were donated to Oxfam and the Salvation Army.

As all students and staff have laptops they can access the library’s 20,000 titles at any time through the school website. Overdrive provided a base website which was customised to include the school’s colours and logo, as well as what categories appeared in the menus. Up to 10 items can be borrowed at a time, and students can browse and view the whole collection at once, even suggesting new content for purchase. There are some restrictions with the software such as what e-readers can be used, what software is required, and dealing with licenses, but overall, the implementation has been a great success.

While some staff and parents have been adverse to the change, the students have wholeheartedly embraced ebooks and are continually asking for more titles to be added to the collection. One of the major bonuses of having the ebooks for English classes has been the ability to annotate the texts allowing students to fully engage with the works. Teachers and students have also started creating their own ebooks based on their own class-created material.

The virtual libraryis still in its infancy, however the next step is to assess the product using the available metrics (what is being read, how often the site is accessed) which can be gathered from the website.

Ian Hildebrand – Manager, Library Services, Mount Barker Community Library

The Mount Barker library got into ebooks almost by accident. Audiobooks were very popular at the library and usage equated to 6% of library business. The EBSCO Net Library platform which housed the library’s audiobooks soon made available an ebook selection.  The library decided to trial a small collection to test the waters with users.

A number of issues and limitations soon came to light:

  • The PDF format for books was not what users wanted, the e-pub format was not available
  • Compatibility issues existed with some readers
  • Most major publishers were not represented i.e. Penguin, Random House
  • Most popular titles and current releases were not included and there was a significant delay in them becoming available
  • There was a heavy bias towards US publishers, rather than UK or Australia, which had implications for geographic restrictions on some titles

Regardless of these issues and the few complaints from users, the service was well used and continuation was warranted.  However, Mount Barker then struck a snag. The EBSCO product became ‘EBSCO ebook Collection ‘and the audiobook component disappeared. This meant that the library no longer had one easy location for both ebooks and audiobooks. Then two of the biggest publishers either reduced their stock on the site or left altogether, further reducing the value of the service. The library has persisted with the product for now but is searching for an alternative platform. They have looked at Overdrive but feel it is quite costly to start up, is again US based, and doesn’t offer any better options for content than EBSCO. It does however have the e-pub format.

The library has moved its audiobook service to Bolinda, which Ian says has better Australian content. The library is also looking at e-magazines using the Zinio online service.

Overall, the event proved an excellent overview of different approaches for different library needs, though it did highlight that there is no ideal solution yet for any library. The journey into the realm of ebooks for all three libraries hasn’t been without some difficulties, and it was enlightening to hear how these different libraries continue to deal with these issues. As Ian said, when it comes to ebooks there is still a real divide between what users and libraries want, and what publishers are prepared to give.

SALIN thanks ALS Library Services, particularly Patricia Genat and Simon Woodley, for sponsoring the event and providing some fabulous door prizes for attendees. ALS provide ebooks through the Wheelers ePlatform service and are currently providing special deals for public and school libraries. Please contact ALS for more information.

Thanks also to our wonderful speakers who not only informed and entertained the audience, but answered a multitude of questions after the event on such things as use of QR codes, use of Smashwords for accessing independent authors, pricing structures, copyright, and the cost-effectiveness of print versus electronic.

Stephen Barnett has kindly provided access to some photographs he took on the night. Access them at this URL:


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