E‐books in Libraries: A Practical Guide

Alison Harling (Library Supervisor, Calderdale College, Halifax, UK)

Program: electronic library and information systems

ISSN: 0033-0337

Article publication date: 27 September 2011




Harling, A. (2011), "E‐books in Libraries: A Practical Guide", Program: electronic library and information systems, Vol. 45 No. 4, pp. 471-474. https://doi.org/10.1108/00330331111182148



Emerald Group Publishing Limited

Copyright © 2011, Emerald Group Publishing Limited

Whether you have started out on the e‐book “road”, or have been travelling on it for some time and gained some experience and/or confusion (!), the contents of this book should keep you in the right direction. Naturally enough, it is also available as an e‐book from Myilibrary (see www.myilibrary.com) and Dawsonera (see www.dawsonera.com).

With their excellent collection of articles from known experts in the field, the editors have really brought into sharp focus what the e‐book enterprise is all about. Hitherto, they note in the Preface, there has been a “noticeable lack of published manuals” on the topic, so with e‐books now becoming a more widely known and acceptable format for reading and study, the timing of this publication is well‐judged – particularly so for those in the education and public library sectors who are responsible for their selection, acquisition and management. For them there is a wealth of practical information, best practice and case studies to draw from. Publishers would also gain benefit, not perhaps from the technical aspects, of which they should already be well aware, but from a business model and marketing perspective, whilst student researchers will no doubt welcome the topical debate.

The arrangement, structure and clarity of style are commendable and appropriate for the intended audience. It is divided into six sections or “parts” – presenting a logical progression starting with matters of production and distribution, then moving through to collection planning and development, delivery to users in an effective manner, persuading them to continue to use it, and discussions as to the future. There is a handy “overview” to each section or “part”, and each chapter concludes with “useful links” and a bibliography. The final part entitled “Useful information” is as stated. It could save precious time, particularly for a busy practitioner. A slight criticism – I would have liked to have seen (in these bibliographies) dates of original access to the online materials to which they refer, if only to inform any decision to follow them further. This aside, the content is thorough and well presented by contributors whose credentials across the LIS sectors are excellent.

Chris Armstrong and Ray Lonsdale “set the scene” with a comprehensive introduction. Their discussion provides an overview of the history of the “e‐book” and its development over the last 40 years or so, including the various attempts at achieving workable business models. Issues of licensing, security, promotion and accessibility are reviewed, as also is that of selection of these resources. Indeed, the fact that there is as yet with no system for legal deposit for e‐books, they argue, demands that the issue of bibliographic control must be addressed. They are both regular writers for professional journals, specialising in library use of electronic resources and electronic publishing, and have been jointly involved in several JISC projects, most notably on the National e‐books Observatory Project 2007‐2009, which reported on the acquisition, management and use of a selection of course e‐textbooks across four disciplines in the higher education sector – Business and Management Studies, Engineering, Medicine and Media Studies (JISC, 2009). Several of the contributors to this guide (particularly those from the academic sector) make reference to this project in the course of their discussions.

The ever‐changing world of publishing is well illustrated by Joel Claypool and Anna Grigson in Part 1. Grigson says quite wisely that acquiring e‐books is a more complex task than their acquiring their print “cousins”. The business models alone are a different creature altogether from the standard. In addition, as Claypool points out, the vendors might well themselves be sold or taken over with your e‐books lost in the ether unless protected by a back up system or repository. A cautionary tale!

Throughout the book, there is some interesting coverage and guidance on factors to be taken into consideration when planning a collection (Part 2 deals with this aspect). Palmer (in chapter 5) deals succinctly with the various barriers encountered – e.g. file format, limitations in coverage (of subject), removal of titles with changes in publisher (and/or their permissions), whether to purchase an individual title or go with a generic “package” containing much irrelevant material, choice of supplier (publisher, aggregator, or existing library supplier), multiple delivery platforms, accessibility issues, and, last but not least, digital rights management (DRM) restrictions. As a practitioner, I would like to have seen more discussion in this guide on problems of selection (of e‐books). Traditional library skills transfer only in a modest fashion to the e‐content formats in my (as yet limited) experience. However, the editors come some way to the rescue with a handy list of “Top tips”, “Checklist for e‐book acquisition”, list of e‐book suppliers, and so on – all in Part 6.

You can acquire e‐books for free (of course), and Kate Price uses two case studies to illustrate the pros and cons of this undertaking (pp. 53‐67). The first – Google Books – shows what might become for some “the ultimate library” despite its flaws and being currently “mired in controversy”. The second – The Heinz Archive and Library of the National Portrait Gallery – shows what can be done, with a little ingenuity on the part of the cataloguing team, to establish an e‐book collection for free and which is easily accessible. Impressive!

Other “free” alternatives are digitizing one's own collection, collating an e‐book from varying separate digital sources, or even creating an e‐book from scratch (“born digital”), but as Price warns, a robust technical infrastructure needs to be in place, as well as the management of the process and intellectual property rights. No real attention is paid to finding or selecting these “free” e‐books, but she does acknowledge this in her introduction. Further information can be found on this topic in Chris Armstrong's newly published directory, The 2011Guide to Free or Nearly‐Free e‐books (Armstrong, 2011).

For marginalised or “hard to reach” sections of society – for example those with visual or hearing impairments – e‐books/e‐content, and the way they can be delivered and made accessible on the plethora of hand‐held electronic devices available now, present a real step forward in terms of provision. Martin Palmer (Principal Officer for Essex County Council's Libraries Department) eloquently articulates the benefits of this fledgling service in Chapters 5 and 11, concluding that dilemmas such as over licensing and delivery platforms, access and internet security – themes which echo throughout this guide – should not dissuade public library practitioners from embracing this new enterprise. Growing public demand is waiting to be catered for and the public library has a role to play in this, he argues. Whether funds can be made available to allow it to do so is another issue of course.

In the further and higher education sector, several of the contributors give very useful and practical advice on how to budget for and manage e‐book acquisitions. Grigson (in chapter 8) does sound a practical note here on the need to carefully manage staff workflows in maintaining an efficient library catalogue that is highly visible.

Of equal importance is their advice on how to make these resources visible through other more proactive methods, e.g. information skills sessions. Their studies and practice reveal that once both tutors and students are aware of and realise the potential benefit of these resources to their teaching and study, the results are an outstanding success, as happened at the University of Portsmouth (see Anne Worden and Timothy Collinson, pp. 237‐51).

If these measures are not adopted, the problem of potential non‐use of a purchased e‐book may arise. Jim Dooley, who is responsible for Collection Development and Technical Services at the University of California Merced Library, suggests the adoption of a “patron selection” model whereby the library user or patron selects an e‐book (in effect “on approval”), and after a certain number of times of access (agreed between the library and the supplier) the book is then bought by the library. Budgetary considerations are a factor as an “up‐front payment” will be a feature of this model, but the e‐book is used at the least!

The authors all agree that raising awareness and maintaining good access to these resources is thus a very necessary activity for library staff, whether they are delivering information skills sessions or cataloguing the acquisitions (in the further and higher education sector), or assisting users with hand‐held devices, or downloading content (in the public library sector). All of this contributes significantly to their visibility and use, and helps to justify the original investment.

As to the future, there is a consensus that the e‐book is here to stay but its format and delivery will change to accommodate user preference and choice of device. Indeed, for some people (for example, who have dyslexia) a hand‐held device such as the iPhone, has literally opened their window on the world of reading as incredibly the “pages” (of the “book”) now make sense (Palmer, p.206). Accessibility issues will probably diminish as interface technology advances, delivery platforms become more unified, and prices fall. Given all that, Virginia Havergal states that rather than be “forced” to use e‐content, she would prefer to have the choice of using e‐content in a variety of media, including print (p. 261). Many students in the case studies presented in this book would agree with her.

Elsewhere in the library press, there is still the feeling that there is a long way to go, and currently “lack of standards and interoperability prevents some libraries doing what they need to do” (Hyams, 2011, pp. 24‐5). Growing demand for e‐content is there nonetheless, and this guide gives the practitioner a handy set of tools to work with to try and satisfy it in the most professional way.


Armstrong, C.J. (2011), The 2011 Guide to Free or Nearly‐Free e‐books, UKeiG, Leyburn.

Hyams, E. (2011), “I want it on my device”, Report on UCL Conference “E‐books revisited: where are we now? E‐books and e‐Content”, London 11 May, CILIPUPDATE with Gazette, June, pp. 24‐5.

JISC (2009), “JISC National E‐books Observatory Project: overview”, available at: www.jiscebooksproject.org (accessed 6 July 2011).

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