eBooks: What is there to love?

Inspired by Ian Drummond’s seminar To print or not to print: Understanding the patterns of use in eBooks

Book lovers, those that cherish paper between their fingers and shelves groaning with volumes, shudder at the thought of digital reading. However, while the scene may be romantic – working surrounded by piles of text books in a beautiful library, green-glassed lamp illuminating the words – the fact remains that with print comes several limitations. This is particularly true for a relatively small, higher education library such as the facility at Navitas Professional Institute, managed by Ian Drummond. When multiple students need access to the same books, relying on print can result in either finding space for lots of copies or would-be borrowers having to wait. With flexibility that print just can’t match, what do eBooks have to offer and do we lose anything by going digital?

The benefits of eBooks are obvious. Zero storage required; depending on publisher restrictions, many books can be used by an unlimited number of readers at any one time; and, texts can be updated to the most current version immediately. Maintaining a large collection of hard copy books for student and teacher use requires copious room for storage, multiple physical copies of the same texts plus the ongoing costs of maintenance and waste as new versions are released.

When the NPI library started their eBook collection in 2009 they found students embraced digital almost immediately. In 2013, eBook usage overtook print loans by a small but significant margin and have remained popular with NPI library users.

There have been some issues, however. For a relatively small library, amassing a large collection of eBooks in a short period of time can be prohibitively expensive. The flexibility of digital does help here, as some publishers will loan to libraries for a period of time which allows them to stock their virtual shelves and be more nimble in responding to borrower need.

eBook platforms like ebrary and eBook Library offer functionality that can enrich reading for study. Important passages can be marked, notes made and saved, searches for key words performed within the text and even copies made and pages printed, within the publishers’ restrictions. As with everything however, there are potential, perhaps not entirely understood, negatives.

How will eBook use affect academic reading proficiency? Does reading in electronic format impede memory retention and learning? Will the tools offered by eBook platforms impact on how much of a text is actually read? When a keyword search is so easy to perform, will ‘reading around the subject’ be lost?

Questions like this inform ongoing research into eBook usage conducted by Ian and his team. Ian acknowledges there is more work to be done to integrate eBooks into NPI curricula but they are working on it, and the benefits are many. Not least, that more students have greater access to information when and where they need it.

But do not fear dear reader, print is not in danger. As Ian says, there is no denying “the value of books and the book format”. Most would agree that the sensory experience of reading a physical book cannot be matched by a digital version. When reading for a specific, academic purpose – working to a deadline, researching, making copious notes –  it cannot be denied that eBooks offer more to the user. When curled up on the couch? Only a crinkle-paged paperback will do.