Should I purchase the ebook or the print book? This is probably one of the most frequent questions that librarians and other information professionals have to ask themselves as ebooks have steadily gained popularity over the years. The first ebooks were available as early as 1971, with the advent of Michael S. Hart’s Project Gutenberg and the digitization of the U.S. Declaration of Independence.
Leaping ahead to 2007, Amazon launched the Kindle ebook reader, and Apple unveiled the iPhone. In 2009, Barnes & Noble introduced the NOOK. Shortly after, in 2010, Apple released the iPad and iBooks, and Google launched its ebookstore. In 2011, Amazon reported that its ebook sales outnumbered its print book sales, and by 2012, ebook sales in the U.S. surpassed hardcover book sales for the first time. By 2014, 50% of U.S. adults owned a tablet or an e-reader, according to a Pew Research Center survey.
With ebooks, we can download content over the internet for a small fee or even for free, providing instant gratification. Serious challenges, such as availability and pricing, still remain. After years of conflict between various publishers and libraries, all of the Big Five publishers are participating in the library ebook market.
Purchasing From Publishers
How do librarians justify incorporating ebooks and e-technology into their collections? They must be able to define the objectives behind purchasing ebooks, and they should ask themselves whether it is to replace existing print services or to experiment with new formats.
There are several business models available for purchasing ebooks, and depending on the model selected, a library may own the title or lease the content for a designated period of time. Many vendors even require libraries to pay ongoing access fees. According to American Libraries, “Some vendors, such as OverDrive, calculate annual fees based on existing collection use data. Libraries that choose not to pay the access fees could lose the content. Therefore, it is imperative that librarians carefully read the license agreement to determine if ebook content can be used when access fees are withheld.”
Ebooks can be purchased through aggregators and wholesalers, but when buying directly from publishers, libraries tend to have greater room for price negotiation, since there is no middleman. This process may require significant library staff time.
Purchasing ebooks through a consortium may be the ticket. Libraries that are members of a consortium may discover greater benefits in operating as a group when buying ebooks. They often can increase their purchasing power and may find that ebooks can be shared across the consortium.
Reading Print and Digital
Just like with a print book, ebooks allow readers to view a book’s contents, take notes, highlight text, and bookmark pages. Moreover, ebooks have varying text sizes, visual aids, and paragraph placement to keep readers engaged. Nevertheless, whether a reader chooses to use a print book or an ebook, it all boils down to individual preference.
A study conducted by the Joan Ganz Cooney Center at Sesame Workshop found that building literacy skills in children is more effective with print books because there is a more centralized focus on the story and the opportunity for engagement between child and parent. Let’s face it: There’s nothing quite like sitting with another person and reading a good, illustrated story. Picture books should never be underestimated.
Adults, however, are more able to comprehend the overall meaning of the text and therefore have a greater appreciation for many of the interactive features that ebooks have to offer.
Overcoming the Challenges
As previously noted, ebook purchases in libraries offer several benefits to patrons, while also posing many challenges for librarians. However, these challenges can be overcome as new business models continue to emerge and changes continue to be made in the industry. The important thing is that librarians are able to define strong collection development goals, stand behind their business models, find a good balance in their print and ebook collections, and successfully negotiate the terms specified in their licensing agreements.
Technologies such as ebooks can lead to positive outcomes, and information professionals must adapt and employ their potentially enhanced value in the digital age.