October 30, 2014

Academic eBooks and the User Experience

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With the increased availability of books in electronic format and libraries’ move from the just-in-case to the just-in-time delivery model and from a storage facility to a collaboration center, it’s no wonder academic libraries have been shifting toward purchasing eBooks over paper copies.

Like the transition from print to electronic serials, this transition comes with its own difficulties, especially for academic libraries. While vendors like Overdrive and 3M’s Cloud Library offer public library users a consumer-like experience, academic libraries contend with collection silos, leaving us to wonder if publishers and vendors of academic eBooks and companies like Adobe are even aware of the usage and adoption gap their products are creating. Which leaves me wondering what academic libraries are doing to improve the user experience.

Since September 2011, the authors, along with two colleagues, recognized that library and press staff at Oregon State University Libraries & Press lacked personal experience with eReading technology. We secured an internal grant to distribute four different types of eReaders to 34 participants for a longitudinal study of their use and adoption. One of the benefits of the study has been our hands-on use of eBooks, eReaders, and eReading software such as Adobe Digital Editions.

Our increased understanding of the user experience encouraged us to make some modifications to our eLending programs. Unfortunately, we also discovered a few issues we can’t do anything about and find ourselves struggling with next steps.

Setting the Stage

Our Learning Commons is set up like most, as a series of personal computers connected to a network. Our administrator images the computers using an image management tool, and students log in with a university-wide credentialing protocol. When a student logs out of the computer, the system does not remember their profile, and even if it did, there would be no guarantee that the terminal they used last week to perform searches or take out an eBook would be available when they came back into the library.

Despite the 2011 ECAR National Study of Undergraduate Students and Information Technology (which found that 53 percent of students own a desktop computer and 87 percent own a laptop), the 114 computers available in the OSU Learning Commons are at 100 percent capacity for 70 percent of the 24-hour day, five days a week, during the fall, winter and spring terms. Additionally, OSU Libraries lends 50 laptops and OSU’s Student Multimedia Services lends 200 laptops, most of which are continually checked out. They rarely have more than two on hand during the regular academic year, and during peak periods there is a waiting list. OSU Libraries is participating in a campus-wide study to explore more fully why students are using the labs so heavily, but preliminarily, these numbers indicate that while students may have personal computers, they are still using public terminals for research and writing.

Don’t Know What You’ve Got Till It’s Gone

When we first began exploring the issues with lending in a public environment, we started getting worried. Adobe Digital Editions (ADE) allows for the transfer of eBooks in ePub, PDF, or reflow-centric XHMTL format regardless of device type. That means it’s possible to put a book on an iPad, a PC, a phone, or a non-Kindle eBook reader. However, as ADE is designed for home use, and it is designed to work across multiple devices, there are some serious drawbacks. Once ADE is installed, the user is prompted to create an account to manage files. The personal ADE login works on only six separate devices. Downloading a book onto one device and adding it to an eReader, but not having ADE auto-populate that title across the account, across devices, leaves the user wondering if, when their computer dies, will access to the purchased content will be lost as well. When you start thinking of how this would work in the lab environment outlined above, your head starts to spin.

Fortunately when you set up ADE on public terminals, you can select the check box that says “Don’t Authorize Computer,” which should allow users to check out books and download them to their devices with impunity, allowing the eBook vendors’ system to take care of automatically returning the item at the end of the lending period.

Unfortunately, while the student may be able to get the title of the book from their reader, assuming they didn’t delete the title as soon as it was unavailable, keeping a log of what they read in their account is next to impossible. We can only hope that they paid attention in library instruction and put the citation in their bibliographic management system, because we can’t help them get that information back once it is gone.

Imagine a student who sits down at the computer, logs in, browses the eBook catalog for her title, finds a book, and reads what she needs online. The student likes what she reads, but when she gets home, she finds she can’t remember what she read. Without the physical item or the record of taking the book out in her profile, she has no cues to remind her which book she wanted to reference. Most eBook vendors provide the option of reading online, and in some cases, require it prior to checkout. While the online reading option allows for a browsing experience, lack of cues like a physical item or a record of what was looked at make remembering the title difficult and recreating a search to find the same item can often be impossible.

Too Many Toolboxes

The issue of not being able to share across platforms exists in the consumer eReader realm as well, but research tools take it to the next level in an academic context. Each eBook vendor provides great features like emailing, downloading, printing, citing, and highlighting content. These tools are theoretically a great addition to the research enterprise, but the tools are different with each eBook vendor, requiring users to relearn each vendor’s workflow, and in some ways acting as a barrier to integration, making retrieval and analysis more difficult. The multi-platform approach leaves some public service librarians wondering if we should bother letting researchers know the tools exist at all.

Some researchers have used these tools and say that while they like the tool itself, having to go back and figure out which vendor they borrowed the book from, remembering that password, and then extracting their notes is so disruptive to the research process as to make it worthless. They don’t recommend the tools to their students and don’t integrate them into their classes either. As John C. Abell said in Wired magazine, reproducing the note-taking “experience will take a new standard, adopted universally, among competitors whose book tech, unlike paper, is proprietary.”

A Growing Problem

With the price of textbooks rising, and institutions building their space in the online learning environment, it’s reasonable to expect an increase in the number of eTextbooks on our syllabi. For those institutions that purchase textbooks for reserves, the lending issue takes on an even more immediate concern. With Ingram’s VitalSource platform delivering 80,000 digital textbooks in 17 languages to 1.6 million students and faculty at 6000 campuses in 180 countries (according to The Global eBook Market: Current Conditions & Future Projections), we will need to figure out ways of making eBooks work in the academic research process more seamlessly.

We are ten years in to the eBook revolution and we’ve learned a lot. Unfortunately, most of the tools on the market are designed to silo users into a branded experience with a specific vendor-driven tool. Big companies have big reasons to keep users in their walled gardens. Being aware of the issues is one thing, but we, as academic librarians, need to find ways to ensure that the needs of the academic researcher do not get lost in the currently consumer-focused marketplace.

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