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IDEA WATCH: For Ebooks, the Future Is Now … Maybe

By Carolyn Foote - Posted May 1, 2013
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Everywhere I go, I am asked questions about ebooks, whether they will replace libraries, what ebook providers my library is using, and whether students are using them. More and more ebook vendors are entering the market, yet there are still many particular needs that schools have that are simply not being met. Ebook models that suit school functionality aren’t being developed fast enough, publishers aren’t sorting out their issues fast enough, and as more and more schools go 1:1, either with tablets or laptops, the need to address this issue for schools is growing.

To complicate matters, everyone from journalists to administrators to architects has this notion that ebooks can currently replace an entire library’s holdings and that there is one “magic bullet” that will fit the bill for their particular school’s needs.

Nothing could be further from the truth. The school ebook market is a complex animal, reminiscent of the music market a decade ago (except there is no “rental” market for music). To even approximate a print library, a school would need several ebook vendors, and even so, certain titles would simply be “unavailable” in ebook format because publishers or authors haven’t released them.

But beyond those issues, part of the problem is that the current models aren’t set up to meet all the functions of school use, which are multifold.

PDA—Learning ‘Just in Time’

For example, when someone with a tablet or e-reader wants a book, she can download it on the spot. But librarians can’t do that if an ebook is needed by one of their students. The soonest most vendors can make the book available in the system is in a few days. And students can’t add a book to the system immediately either. Yet usually the needs of students in K–12 is immediate.

How could vendors create a system that would allow instant addition of a book to the collection? Isn’t that supposed to be part of the convenience of ebooks anyway? Patron-driven acquisition (PDA) could allow students to drive the collections forward. The ebook vendor designs a system whereby the patrons can “acquire” an item for the library and request that it be added to the collection or add it themselves and begin using it immediately. In these types of models, patrons can see an entire collection available from a vendor without the library having purchased it. Many academic ebook providers allow for PDA, but very few vendors who work with school library ebook collections do, with the exception of Brain Hive and possibly EBSCO.

Most school ebook providers aren’t even investigating this model. How could patron-driven acquisition help school librarians? When our budgets are strapped, we don’t want to spend money purchasing ebooks if we aren’t entirely sure our students will be using them. In many of our libraries, we have suggestion boxes for students to recommend print titles, and some librarians even have a guild of students who help select books for the library. But PDA would allow us to have all students self-select the books they’d like to e-read on the spot, meeting them at their point of need immediately. (Brain Hive’s model is rental-based, and the librarian can set the number of rentals that would trigger a purchase, but they currently have fewer high school titles).

Many Needs, One Platform

Another issue for school library ebook use is that we have varied needs. While public libraries mainly have one type of ebook use—checking an item out to a patron—schools tend to use books in different ways.

Leisure reading is one way, but classroom teachers often require “group” access to books. For example, an entire class is often researching a similar topic and in need of the same set of ebooks. In that case, individual checkout models don’t work well. Databases such as Gale Virtual Reference Library and Mackin have quickly recognized this problem and do provide multi-user ebooks, particularly in nonfiction. However, especially at the secondary level, an entire class might be reading the same fiction work. If the teacher teaches five sections of that class, it’s possible he would need 150 copies of that book in print or in ebook format with multi-user access.

Wouldn’t it be great if teachers could just rent those books for the 3 weeks they are studying the title? If ebooks are supposed to help streamline learning (and costs), then why should school libraries or English departments have to purchase that many ebook copies (in a 1:1 school environment) if they could just borrow them for a month? Or the fiction could be multi-user for class-set sorts of situations, but for short periods of time to reduce costs. Publishers and vendors have been slow to catch on to this model, but for schools, it makes tremendous sense. And it could even be a source of untapped revenue for ebook vendors that want to market to schools.

Another option would be having a contract to “lease” large sets of books throughout the year with an annual fee charged by the vendor. This fee could cover all class set leases during the year. It could be done on a limited use or unlimited use basis. This is an ebook solution that schools desperately need, especially as more and more schools are going 1:1.

Ease of Use

As a 1:1 iPad school, one of the difficulties my school has been struggling with is the “purchase” versus checkout model. If it is easier for students to purchase an ebook on Amazon or Barnes & Noble than to check it out from the library’s ebook collection, and they can afford to do so, why wouldn’t they? (This also begs all sorts of inequity questions for students in 1:1 schools that cannot afford to purchase their own ebook copies to download.) We need to make it as easy as possible for students to access the library’s ebook collection so that the library’s shared collection is meeting students’ needs.

What would make it easier? An entryway that is easy for students with the fewest passwords possible. Could a system detect the location of a student with his device and simply allow IP authentication the way databases do, thus skipping logins altogether? Could a system be created that could scan a student’s own ID or bar code and allow her in that way, rather than requiring the student to log in with a password and ID? That would be an option I would appreciate since our students all have IDs with bar codes on them. This works if libraries are trying to track individual use or keep records. For more research-based ebooks, the model Gale uses is easily accessible since students use an app to locate their school from a list of schools in the state. No complex weblink is needed, and one password gets them in.

Ebook Awareness

Making students aware of what ebooks the library carries is another challenge. You can’t display an ebook … although I have tried printing out covers of ebooks and attaching a QR code linking to the book on our ebook provider. How can we (or vendors) think outside the box about how to make ebooks more visible for students?

What about augmented reality to display ebooks? At the Internet Librarian 2012 conference I attended last fall, librarians from the Fashion Institute of Design & Merchandising in San Francisco shared a retail app that allowed the customer to scan the store and see items that the store carried but that weren’t physically on the shelf. What if there were a library app connected to your existing ebook collection that could “show” students when they scanned the library what ebooks were available for that “section” of the library? What if the online catalog could recommend similar books the way Amazon does, but recommend ebooks instead of print books (or along with print books)?

What if library ebooks had cool content that the print book didn’t have? For a great example, check out Cory Doctorow’s Homeland ebook. In the free-to-download ebook version, he interjects recommendations for various bookstores around the country in short vignettes. How could the ebook link to “sneak peeks” of future books, include audio interviews with the author “inside the book,” or even offer prizes? Why can’t we leverage the power of the digital format better in “check-outable” fiction for schools?

It is an exciting time in the ebook market because the potential is there for some really useful products that meet the distinct needs of school libraries and their students. But vendors and publishers have been painfully slow to embrace the variety of ways schools use ebooks, and in the meantime, librarians are being pressured to supplement their collections with ebooks. While ALA has a Working Group on Libraries and Digital Content, it is primarily focusing on ebooks for public libraries. School libraries need ways to come together with publishers to focus on the special problems we have. Books such as The Hunger Games and the Harry Potter series didn’t take off by themselves. In addition to the quality of writing, they had librarians who were singing their praises and promoting them to students, which is free publicity. The invisible nature of an “ebook” makes that sort of publicity even more important to publishers and authors. It’s time we start solving these problems.


Contact Carolyn at

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