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March 20, 2014

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IDEA WATCH: Dissecting Ebooks and Libraries--An Evolving Market

IDEA WATCH: Dissecting Ebooks and Libraries--An Evolving Market

In theory, ebooks can provide our students with easy access from all of their devices to reading material. But for libraries, there are all sorts of issues to be resolved in order to offer ebooks to our students. Developing an ebook collection is more fraught with questions than answers.

As many of us move further down the ebook path, we struggle to resolve these issues. For example, how do we balance the time to purchase both an ebook collection and a print collection when we are just single librarians in our schools? It is like developing two separate collections, but it’s more time-consuming because we have to coordinate the two collections. Each library has to take the time to plan and envision its ebook collection’s purpose and development. Do we start with fiction? Nonfiction? What needs does our student population have? How do we assess that? What is their interest in or need for ebook content?

Managing a collection of ebooks is also challenging because titles may be offered by one vendor or publisher but not another. How many vendors can we work with on a practical level in terms of hosting materials? Alison Hewett, a school librarian from Auckland, New Zealand, reveals this is a global dilemma, commenting on Twitter that it is “frustrating trying to explain to kids why we can’t have their faves e.g. Wimpy kid, Capt Underpants,” etc.

Discoverability Issues

So to provide more choices, do we purchase ebooks from multiple vendors? If so, then how do we house them so that they are easily discoverable by students? Each service has its own online shelf, but is that practicable for students? MackinVIA offers to combine all ebooks onto one shelf, but there is a fee for that sort of service. Since the price of ebooks is already high, is that affordable? Or is our online catalog the central location of choice?

If you are a 1:1 school with tablets, that question gets even more complex. Each site—Follett Corp., OverDrive, Gale, etc.—has its own app. But should students have to hop through each different app trying to find the books they want to read?

The importance of tablet devices or 1:1 access for students does seem to be a strong motivating factor for ebook use at my own campus and others, but more research is needed. Hewett tweeted, “BYOD at our school … all have a tablet/laptop—thats the biggest factor for success imo [in my opinion].” In the same Twitter conversation, New Hampshire librarian David Franz pondered whether implementation at his school hadn’t taken off because of a lack of devices among his student population.

Student discovery is another issue in connecting students with ebooks in the first place. Librarians have developed many creative methods for helping students be aware; for example, our library prints covers of ebook titles and attaches a QR code to them for display. There is agreement in the Twittersphere about the importance of PR. Franz (whose students access their ebooks via the public library), commented: “I wonder if my kids don’t buy in because we don’t have them so I don’t pitch them?”

Pricing Issues

Prices also continue to be a major obstacle for libraries. When doing a recent purchase, I discovered that best-selling books such as I Am Malala, a popular book for high school students, costs $85 in ebook format. If I purchased the book from Amazon, it would cost $13 (as of January 2014). The ebook cost is more than six times the cost of the print book. As we migrate more and more to e-collections, how can school libraries sustain those sorts of costs in a time of shrinking library budgets?

The cost factors are further complicated by the pricing models. Some publishers offer their ebooks through only one vendor or another. Some publishers (HarperCollins) allow only 26 checkouts per title via OverDrive. HarperCollins’ initial book prices have been lowered for the most part, but on the other hand, this creates another collection development headache for school librarians, tracking and budgeting for which popular books need to be renewed when we buy them constantly throughout the year.

The market obviously continues to be in a great deal of flux. Knowing about these issues is crucial to being an informed consumer if you are just entering into the ebook market. But we cannot let these difficulties scare us away from purchasing ebooks, because the advantages for students are many. We just have to continue to inform publishers about our needs and advocate for the right of school libraries to offer ebooks affordably.

The Convenience Factor, and Other Benefits for Students

For students, ebooks offer a great convenience, especially students in schools with 1:1. As Hewett tweeted (and I have also experienced), “For our students it’s convenience, library in your pocket, 24/7, finish a book; get next in series instantly.” When you select a book from a print library, if you dislike it, you still have to go to the library to get a different one or the next in the series. If you are eager to read something, that can mean a long wait. The instant gratification of being able to immediately select a new book is a real appeal for ebooks for readers of all ages. (As a librarian, I also find being able to order and have a new book available within hours is very appealing.)

And recent early research is showing that for early readers, there may be a positive impact of the combination of touching, viewing and reading material at the same time. Franz shared a recent study, highlighted in the blog The Digital Shift, that was conducted by Kathleen Roskos, Karen Burstein, Yi Shang, and Emily Gray at John Carroll University. The study has interesting findings regarding ebooks and literacy for early readers. According to the report in The Digital Shift, “[T]he authors speculate that the ‘spatial and temporal synchrony’ of children looking, listening, and touching while reading may be the ‘sweet spot’ that garners their ‘attention to e-text in ways that support early literacy experience and learning’” (

For students, there are other benefits as well. Hewett remarked, “Kids tell me: You can’t tell how fat an ebook is, so not put off by size!” A student recently commented to me that she started a book on the iPad while waiting for the print copy to arrive in the mail, but had she realized the length of the book she might not have begun it as it was dauntingly long. Also, ebooks provide a degree of privacy for students—others cannot see what they are reading, whether it is a Hi-Lo book or a title that they might want to be discreet about.

Coping Strategies

There are some purchasing strategies you might think about. Use several vendors to have more of a variety of publishers and more choice in your offerings. Hewett suggests buying books in small batches so there is always fresh content appearing on the ebook shelf. Publicize your ebook collection everywhere—on the announcements, in the bathroom, on display shelves, etc., so that students know how to find it. Communicate with your vendors often about costs, problems, and your needs as a school librarian. They need to hear from us. And if your state purchases ebooks for public libraries but not schools, start giving input to your state library association about the need for state consortiums for e-content for school libraries as well.

The ebook market will eventually become much more seamless and publishers will hopefully find their way—but we only have to look at the music market to see that it takes time for the market to settle out. Meanwhile, we have to move forward to offer our students easy access to reading materials and to continue to make our students’ voices heard in the marketplace. 

Contact Carolyn at

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