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The State of Ebooks in Academic Libraries
Posted On January 8, 2019
In a Campus Technology article from Dec. 12, 2018, Dian Schaffhauser reports that according to statistics from the U.S. Department of Education, “library collections in higher education now contain more digital items than physical.” Let’s take a look at what a couple of academic library staffers have to say about the state of ebooks in their libraries today. (For some insights from public library staffers, see the forthcoming March issue of Information Today.)


University of Minnesota Libraries has more than 500,000 ebooks in its collections that are searchable by title, subject, or author and browsable by collection name. A YouTube video explains what ebooks are available, how to find them, and how to get help from a librarian, among other tips. There is also a webpage explaining how to get free ebooks from the university, public libraries, and web repositories such as HathiTrust.

Sunshine J. Carter, interim collection development officer and electronic resources librarian/ERM unit manager at University of Minnesota Libraries, says student and faculty use of ebooks is increasing in various disciplines. “Anecdotally, we have heard users appreciate access to ebooks, especially when they are looking for a particular piece of information.” Despite the Libraries’ thorough how-to website, “the changing landscape makes it hard to keep the information up to date and users cannot be expected to know the peculiarities of using each ebook platform we have access to.”

At Boston University (BU) Libraries, ebooks “are becoming increasingly popular and the libraries at Boston University are adding a substantial number of [them] to the library collections. Electronic books are available through a number of different providers, all of which have different limitations and capabilities,” according to the Libraries’ guide. The guide has a Tips for Use of e-Books section that offers “some information about the limitations and capabilities of some of the major providers.” Ebooks are sorted by discipline and can be searched via the Libraries’ search portal (by limiting to books available online). The guide also points out where to find OA ebooks.

Steve Smith, head of collection development at BU Libraries, says, “Ebooks are, overall, widely popular on our campus. And, as a whole, our ebook collections are heavily used, with use increasing each year.”

Benefits of Ebooks

BU Libraries gets mainly positive feedback from the university community. “Most requests we receive from faculty specifically request the ebook, either because they plan to assign the book for a course or because they want access to the title as quickly as possible—and wherever they might be,” says Smith. “The negative feedback primarily relates to patrons being locked out of single-user copies of ebooks, or to print books not being available electronically.”

Carter and her colleagues at the University of Minnesota are “exploring whether to reallocate funds to allow for more on-demand purchases of ebooks. We have strengthened our preference for DRM-free ebooks and are supportive of monographic open access initiatives,” she says. University of Minnesota Libraries Publishing Services is its own OA publishing operation—four monographs are planned for release in early 2019, which will join the six existing monographs as well as 30 textbooks as part of the Libraries’ initiative to help instructors identify, adopt, and possibly create affordable teaching materials. Carter says that in the past year, University of Minnesota Libraries Publishing Services’ open textbooks have had more than 24 million page views from around the world.

However, “Regarding the course-content related materials, users have let us know that they prefer print to ebooks for course-related readings,” she says. But if an ebook is free, students are happy to use it. “Statistics indicate that many of our already owned ebooks now used for coursework are being used more.”


BU Libraries is vendor- and platform-agnostic, says Smith. Decisions about purchasing are made based on a provider’s price, availability of titles, purchasing model, and DRM restrictions. BU Libraries’ major providers are ProQuest, Springer, De Gruyter, Oxford University Press, and JSTOR. “Preferably, we would add all ebooks as demand-driven acquisition (DDA) titles, and let the purchasing ‘decisions’ be made by the level of use an ebook gets from users,” says Smith. But not all ebooks are available via DDA, so publisher packages are also a necessity. BU Libraries evaluates usage each year to determine which packages it should continue to purchase.

Carter says University of Minnesota Libraries purchases ebooks directly from publishers when it can because they tend to allow for unlimited simultaneous users and offer book or chapter downloads. Ebooks purchased from aggregators “require our users [to] take a variety of steps to read [them], which is a barrier to access. However, often we have no choice but to purchase an ebook through an aggregator. Additionally our discovery system ([Ex Libris’] Alma/Primo) provides access to purchased and open-access monographs.” Another avenue for purchasing is the Libraries’ small DDA program with JSTOR, “which makes the most recent few years of titles published by JSTOR discoverable in our catalog. Certain uses trigger purchases for the library. We have chosen the JSTOR DDA program over others because these titles are DRM-free.”

Carter continues, “One area of growth has been in purchasing course-related ebooks. We have a partnership with the University of Minnesota Bookstores whereby the Libraries surfaces ebooks needed for coursework, either already purchased by the Libraries or ones we can buy as our funds allow. Our purchasing guidelines for this program are anything under $300, no novels, multiple- or unlimited-users and priority given to the required reading with the highest retail cost. This fall we provided multiple use ebooks for over 400 courses.” The university community can view course-related ebooks from this partnership on the Libraries’ website.

Vendor Insights

In 2017, Elsevier published “Moving From Print to Electronic in Academic Libraries—A Timely Consideration.” The article notes that “online journals have been prevalent throughout this century, and continue to grow in popularity, [but] the move from print monographs to eBooks has not been as clear-cut. Even though the vast majority of the scholarly community prefers an online work environment, educators and students don’t always think of books being available or useful in that format. DRM has been a roadblock in many instances, and long-form reading has been more difficult using eBooks.”

Elsevier cites a spring 2017 survey of more than 140 of its academic, corporate, and government customers that explores attitudes toward e-resources. Nearly 72% are going digital to meet the needs of their users, and 58% want to be able to provide multiuser access to content. “Many of those surveyed echo the same benefits to be gained from the transition to an electronic library: easy multi-user and remote access, reduced space requirements, the ability to do full-text searching, 24x7 content availability, expanded range of topics and more current content.” The article also details a survey of more than 100 ScienceDirect users. Among other reasons, 48% say they are transitioning to e-resources because of budget pressure, while 28% cite declining staff.

The article shares opinions from library staffers at institutions such as Delaware Valley College in Pennsylvania—director Peter Kupersmith says that space saving, convenience, and off-campus access are major benefits of ebooks—and Syracuse University in New York associate dean of research and scholarship Scott Warren says that “eBooks work very well for short-form reading,” and the library is doing a “significant repurposing” of space to put student success centers and classrooms where some bookshelves had been.

It concludes with the following: “As they evaluate their print versus electronic holdings, make decisions on what to keep, store, deassess, convert or add, and invest in infrastructure to support new options, librarians must first and foremost consider their commitment to the best possible environment and resources for faculty and students. There is strong evidence that moving from print to electronic books will enable their patrons to work more efficiently, enjoy greater discovery and increase their access to valuable content.”

Brandi Scardilli is the editor of NewsBreaks and Information Today.

Email Brandi Scardilli

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