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Print Books vs. Ebooks: Who's Up, Who's Down, and Where Are We Headed?
Posted On June 20, 2017
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Academic Library Trends

Indicators from academic libraries present a similar mixed picture. Madeline Kelly, head of collection development at George Mason University (GMU) in Virginia, notes that GMU’s ebook acquisitions have risen steadily over the past 5 years, while print purchases have fallen by 40% in dollars or 34% in terms of the number of titles, from FY2013 to FY2017. Consistent with Kelly’s observations, Library Journal’s 2016 survey of ebook usage found that the median size of ebook collections more than doubled from 2010 to 2012, but grew by less than one-third from 2012 to 2016. Meanwhile, the size of print collections continues to be about two-and-a-half times larger than the number of ebook volumes. The “Ithaka S+R US Library Survey 2016” of academic library directors gives a mixed picture as well. Survey data supplied by author Christine Wolff show that the percentage of total acquisition spending devoted to print books declined by 30% from 2010 to 2016, with the steepest drop coming from 2010 to 2013. At the same time, spending on ebooks rose by more than 82%—with the greatest increases coming after 2013.

Library Journal found that circulation data were hard to come by, and it could not produce a clear summary of the patterns of ebook and print book circulation. It did note that expectations for ebook usage remain positive. In 2012, survey respondents expected an average annual increase of 15% in ebook usage; in 2016 the corresponding estimate was a bit more modest, at 9.5%. Meanwhile, at GMU, Kelly notes that “ebooks seem to be a cost-effective investment: in the last few years we’ve seen cost-per-use come down to well under a dollar,” although “we are aware that e-books continue to be a source of ongoing confusion and frustration for users.”

So What’s Next?

There’s no indication of another burst of growth in the ebook sector, either in the general marketplace or in library collections, but the likelihood that ebooks will fade away is equally remote. Instead, smart librarians are paying close attention to trends, diving into the details to understand different use cases and the preferences of different user segments and working toward improved accessibility of their ebook collections. Teaze says that “the newness has faded” and that digital reading is now a fact of life. She expects high demand for adult titles to continue, but notes that ebooks have no significant presence in her library’s children’s collections—nor are users demanding them.

In higher education, Library Journal also notes important differences in the popularity of ebooks for different purposes. The ebook format was the overwhelming favorite for reference material, while most library users continue to prefer print textbooks and other genres. And yet, Kelly points out the importance of ebooks as GMU expands its online course offerings.

In the Ithaka S+R survey, Wolff finds that library directors expect to continue shifting funds from print to ebooks through 2021. Their consensus estimate was that ebook spending will overtake print book spending in absolute dollar terms and will account for 58% of spending on monographic acquisitions by 2021. (Serials and digital databases are expected to continue representing a far larger share of total acquisitions.) On the other hand, Wolff also found a modest resurgence in the commitment to print collections in her survey. In 2013, only 28% of library directors rated “purchasing print books to build research collections” as a high or very high priority, but in the 2016 survey this proportion leapt to 45%.

Meanwhile, changes in technology and the marketplace could yet give a new impetus to ebooks. Publishers could expand their adoption of the EPUB 3.1 standard, which supports a variety of enhancements to texts. Book apps for mobile devices could be deployed. Or, new business models, such as crowdfunding, subscription services, and serialization, could grow, according to Alistair Horne in the March 2017 issue of The Indexer.

In the library world, the Digital Public Library of America (DPLA) is attacking the problem that many ebooks are available only from a vendor’s proprietary platform and are thus poorly integrated not only with print collections but also with other ebook holdings. (To appreciate how bizarre this is from the user’s point of view, imagine a print collection shelved by a publisher—no librarian and no user would stand for that!) DPLA’s Sloan Foundation-funded initiative, currently being piloted, builds on the earlier ReadersFirst initiative to provide a standard protocol for ebook access.

And so we can expect the reading marketplace to continue to evolve, and future surprises are likely. The wise librarian will follow the principles articulated by Kelly: “We don’t have any major reason to lose faith in e-books. … That said, we’re not giving up on print. We’ll keep going with our mix of p and e—which varies from subject to subject—and keep an eye on things.”

For more on ebooks, read the Ebooks Revisited articles in the June issue of Computers in Libraries magazine. "Ebook ROI: A Longitudinal Study of Patron-Driven Acquisition Models" is available for free.

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Dave Shumaker is a retired clinical associate professor at The Catholic University of America in Washington, D.C., and a former corporate information manager. He is also the author of The Embedded Librarian: Innovative Strategies for Taking Knowledge Where It’s Needed (Information Today, Inc., 2012), and he founded SLA’s Embedded Librarians Caucus in 2015.

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