:: Digital Libraries Columns


Library Journal "Digital Libraries" Columns 1997-2007, Roy Tennant

Please note: these columns are an archive of my Library Journal column from 1997-2007. They have not been altered in content, so please keep in mind some of this content will be out of date. :: Digital Libraries Columns

The Emerging Role of E-Books


Nearly two years ago, I asserted that print books were going to be around for quite some time ([123]"The Print Perplex: Building the Future Catalog," LJ 11/15/98) and that we had to get better at providing combined access to both digital and print material. My opinion has not weakened over time but rather has strengthened.

That column came out before the current hype about e-book companies, services, and devices, so I simply focused on the retrospective conversion problem. That dilemma remains intractable (cost, copyright, etc.) and suffices to point to a hybrid environment for the foreseeable future. But what about new material? What about e-books and e-book readers? How will they fit into our mix of collections and services?

Current e-book hype notwithstanding, there are still many purposes for which they are not the right solution. From board books for toddlers to coffee- table books for adults, e-books are unlikely to unseat print completely as the format of choice. But there are also clearly places where they do fit and are increasingly likely to replace print books.

E-book niches

Any book aimed at students is prime territory for an e-book. When I was a student, I lugged some 50 pounds of textbooks from class to class. Who needed P.E.? For students, e-books are clear winners. One slim device is all that's required to put dozens of titles at your fingertips, along with annotation capabilities, easy dictionary look-ups, etc.

E-books seem made-to-order for students. The problem is that libraries typically don't purchase textbooks. Nonetheless, just about any nonfiction title, particularly those that are used in reference or quick look-up fashion, seem as appropriate as books.

Another niche that seems ready for e-books is the one occupied by technical books. Software programmers, web managers, systems administrators, and others in technical fields must constantly refer to manuals, how-to books, and other documentation in the course of their work. The searching capabilities of e-books, as well as the benefit of having dozens of books in one small device, make e-books an excellent solution for these professionals.

One technical book publisher that seems to understand this is O'Reilly & Associates. It recently announced a "knowledge interface" called Safari, which goes beyond simply mounting its books online. Subscribers will be able to search and browse the books to which they subscribe through a unified interface that lets them pull content together at a level deeper than chapters.

A potential audience for e-books (identified by Roberta Burk in "Don't Be Afraid of E-Books," LJ 4/15/00, p. 42-45) are people who enjoy series books, or books in a particular genre (e.g., mysteries). Libraries can load up an e-book reader with all of an author's titles, and the borrower can happily plow through the collection.

E-books and libraries

E-books come in device-dependent formats made specifically for a particular reading device such as the Rocket eBook or SoftBook Reader or device-independent formats either delivered via the web (such as those sold by netLibrary) or as Adobe Acrobat files (or soon Microsoft Reader files) on CD-ROM or over the web.

Device-dependent e-books bring with them particular challenges for libraries, since the device -- not just the content -- must be managed. Consider, for example, if we still had to check out VCRs along with the videotapes we offer for loan. Add to that the difficulty of each VCR being preloaded with a certain set of titles, none of which could be used by someone who checked out a different VCR. That describes the situation with Rocket eBooks, SoftBooks, and others dependent upon a particular device to be functional. Perhaps some day we can expect people to own the readers themselves, as they now do with VCRs, but not yet.

As Burk reports, it is necessary to not only catalog the individual e-book titles but also on which reader they are loaded. When a user checks out that particular e-book, all the titles on that reader must also be checked out. Therefore the selection of books loaded on the readers requires much thought.

Librarians also must decide which e-book reading device to purchase. Although one company (Gemstar International Group) owns both the Rocket eBook and the SoftBook reader, it plans to keep both products and aim them at different market segments. So will libraries need to purchase both devices in order to offer the widest range of content? If not, which one? Unfortunately, until e-book companies adopt a common content format such as the Open eBook Standard, librarians may need to adopt all e-book formats.

The new kids

Device-independent e-books are often web-based, but they can also be published on CD-ROMs, DVDs, or other formats. One major e-book vendor of device-independent e-books is netLibrary, which is directly courting the library market as one of its core clientele. netLibrary has been successful at sign-ing on a number of university presses, thereby making its offerings particularly enticing for colleges and universities. Since the user is not required to have a particular reading device to use the e-books, libraries need not stock nor manage any special hardware.

Similar companies that provide web-based e-books include Books24x7, which at this point is primarily focused on technical books related to computers, and ebrary, which is set to launch its collection and services this summer.

Not to be left out, Microsoft is waing into the pool with the Microsoft Reader software that will implement the ClearType technology it developed to make online reading easier. The software is designed to be used on devices ranging from pocket PCs to desktops and will be able to read books coded using the Open eBook standard. An application is already available in a prerelease (beta) version that converts text and HTML into Microsoft's proprietary reader format.

One final note: don't buy anything as an e-book you hope to keep around for a long time. Digital preservation is still a problem in search of a solution, and proprietary digital formats are particularly troublesome. In a move to alleviate at least some anxiety related to web-based e-books, netLibrary has placed copies of its titles with OCLC to hold in escrow against the possibility of bankruptcy or other calamities.

E-book resources

Resources for those interested in e-books, from the consumer perspective to that of a librarian, are beginning to abound. eBookNet is a site aimed at consumers but can be useful for anyone interested in e-books and what titles are available. Just keep in mind that the site is sponsored by the company that brings you SoftBook and the Rocket eBook, so don't expect it to be completely objective, despite claims of editorial independence.

A site specifically for librarians is eLibraryBook, which is launching this month with reviews of e-books and resources for librarians. "Can E-Books Improve Libraries?" links to a number of resources, as does the "Crib Sheet on Electronic Books."

If you are still trying to sort out hype from reality, see "Books of the Future," "Don't Be Afraid of E-Books," and "Electrifying the Book" (netConnect, LJ 10/15/99, p. 3-6, and LJ 1/00, p. 24-27) and "From P-Books to E-Books" (Communications of the ACM, 5/00, p. 17-21).


                                                       Books of the Future
                                            Can E-Books Improve Libraries?
                                            Crib Sheet on Electronic Books

                                                          Microsoft Reader


                                                          Open eBook Forum

                                                         O'Reilly's Safari

                                                              Rocket eBook