September 22, 2023

LJ/SLJ Ebook Summit: Making Ebooks Visible at Academic Libraries


How are academic librarians making their patrons aware of ebook options? An afternoon panel at yesterday’s LJ’s and School Library Journal’s virtual summit, “Ebooks: The New Normal,” tackled just that.

The panel, moderated by Josh Hadro, LJ’s executive editor, digital products, focused on the ways that academic libraries are making ebooks accessible and useful to higher-ed students—and some of the questions that arise from such marketing. As LJ’s and SLJ’s just-released 2011 Ebook Penetration & Use in U.S. Libraries Survey, shows, 95 percent of academic libraries now offer ebooks, and the number of ebooks in their collections increased by 93 percent in the past year. It’s unsurprising, then, that ebook promotion is on many academic librarians’ minds.

The big questions
Barbara Fister, a librarian at Gustavus Adolphus College, St. Peter, MN, and a columnist for the LJ Academic Newswire, kicked the discussion off with some hard questions, such as whether librarians “are ready and willing to give up some long-held principles,” such as safeguarding privacy and resisting censorship, “…in exchange for having access to more stuff, right now.” Putting so many resources toward temporary licenses for access to materials, she said, may well have consequences for users in the future. “Are we okay with losing the ability to share beyond our small islands of tuition-paying customers?” Fister asked. “We seem to be willing to give up a lot, and I don’t think our users are even aware of what we’re giving up on their behalf.”

Fister, an open access advocate, spoke skeptically about how ebooks are currently licensed and controlled, and gave particular attention to two potential models for library ebooks—bundles and subscriptions. “Wait, haven’t we been here before with serials?” she asked. “That hasn’t really ended very well for us.” Freely sharable academic monographs, she said, may provide a way forward—and she pointed out the University of Michigan Press’s Digital Culture Books series.

Increasing ebook awareness
By contrast, Maria Savova, a collection development and special projects librarian at McGill University Library, Montréal, QC, Canada, got more granular, and talked about how her library set about promoting its nearly one million ebooks—by first addressing the reasons why many people aren’t interested in reading ebooks at all. She referred to a 2008 study that found that the top reason that students don’t use ebooks is simply because they are simply unaware of them; others don’t like reading books while sitting at a computer.

The first problem was addressed by expanding electronic course reserves, helping to make e-content more visible; the second was assuaged by an ereader lending program, for which the library purchased more than 100 portable Sony Readers. “The whole point of downloadable content is its portability,” she said. The changes proved popular with students, significantly increasing turnover of OverDrive content by 25 percent. The library also runs a workshop targeted at student mobile-device users to explain how to download e-content to such devices.

Using word of mouth
Joseph Sanchez, instructional design librarian for the University of Colorado Denver and a 2011 LJ Mover & Shaker, spoke about the innovative program he helped launch at his former library at Red Rocks Community College in Lakewood, CO. In 2007, it became one of the first libraries in the United States to circulate both iPads and dedicated ereaders (Amazon Kindles) to students—who were then allowed leeway to purchase their own materials, effectively allowing them to develop the library’s ebook collection themselves. Indeed, library staff only bought about five to ten percent of the ebooks for the iPads and Kindles. While this could have been potentially costly, Sanchez that after a “quick growth curve,” costs stabilized because all the students were “reading the same stuff”—primarily academic texts. It also had the advantage of getting student engaged with e-content.

He also communicated with students via an unusual marketing tactic—“text bombs,” in which he asked his student staffers to text library announcements to their friends, and ask them to text their friends—correctly assuming that word-of-mouth spreads faster among friends than from a faceless library institution. And, indeed, word spread—all of the Kindles were all checked out within 24 hours after they were made available. Word of mouth, he said, was an important element in his promotion plan.

Sanchez and a few students that worked for him also experimented with creating an iPad app to let iPad borrowers check out local open-source multimedia content from the library, although this was not rolled out for public use.

The work on the app turned Sanchez on to the idea of potentially using student information, such as searches using the OPAC, to customize recommendations, similar in concept to how retailers like Amazon suggest materials. It’s a controversial topic, and it does raise potential privacy issues, but Sanchez said, in his experience, students “don’t care. Most of this generation doesn’t think of privacy the way we do.” He continues to work on projects exploring the possibility of using patron information at his new job in Denver. There, he says, he and his staff are working less on hardware-based solutions and more on software-based ideas.

Reading for pleasure?
As an aside, the panelists also briefly discussed the idea of students using ebooks for “pleasure reading.” Fister cited a study she did at her institution a few years ago in which only “a very small minority” said they liked using ebooks either for pleasure or academic study.

Savova and Sanchez, however, both said that the large majority of ebook titles checked out more recently at their respective libraries have been used for study purposes, and not simply for pleasure. Sanchez cautioned, however, that students’ thoughts regarding ebooks are likely still in a state of flux. “Doing surveys of people’s attitudes about ebooks can be somewhat misleading,” he said. “It’s kind of like doing a survey of people’s attitude about cell phones in 1988. It’s going to evolve into something completely different to what we know in the next five years.”


David Rapp About David Rapp

Associate editor David Rapp previously covered technology for Library Journal.