The Use of E-Books in Law Libraries: Legal Libraries Face Special Challenges in Adopting E-Books, but the Pressures to Do So Will Only Grow Greater over Time

By Tredwell, Susannah | Information Outlook, July-August 2011 | Go to article overview

The Use of E-Books in Law Libraries: Legal Libraries Face Special Challenges in Adopting E-Books, but the Pressures to Do So Will Only Grow Greater over Time


Tredwell, Susannah, Information Outlook


E-books have been the major success story in American publishing over the last few years. In February 2011, $90.3 million worth of e-books were sold in the United States, according to the Association of American Publishers. Amazon.com's figures for e-book sales are even more impressive; since April 1, Amazon.com has sold 105 Kindle books for every 100 printed books. This statistic is all the more remarkable given that it excluded free Kindle books and included printed books for which there were no Kindle equivalents.

The growing popularity of e-book readers has been a key factor in the increase in e-book sales. Several media reports attributed the jump in e-book sales earlier this year to the large number of e-readers received as Christmas presents. The popularity of tablets such as iPads has also been a factor--the variety of e-book applications for tablets means that their owners are not tied to one specific e-book retailer.

E-books come in a variety of formats, with EPUB (an open e-book format that is expected by some to become the industry standard), AZW (Amazon's proprietary format for the Kindle), and PDF being the best known. Not all formats work with all e-readers--an important consideration when considering e-book purchases. Digital rights management (DRM) is also a concern, as it limits how e-books can be used.

E-Book Models

The rising popularity of e-books and e-readers is reflected in the steady growth in the number of e-books in public and academic library collections. According to the National Center for Education Statistics, slightly more than 20 million e-books were added by academic libraries in 2008, up from roughly 16.2 million in 2006. The number of e-books in public libraries has also increased. According to the American Library Association, two-thirds of public libraries now offer access to e-books, up from 55 percent in 2009.

The adoption of e-books by public libraries has not been problem free. Some publishers, including Simon & Schuster, refuse to allow libraries to lend e-books. Another major issue has been licensing--in one well-publicized case, HarperCollins announced that libraries would have to repurchase e-books after 26 loans. Public libraries have, however, been working to help patrons learn how to use e-books. Some have set up workshops to teach patrons how to borrow books using their e-readers, while others are lending e-readers along with their books.

Public and academic libraries have tended to use two very different e-book models. Public libraries use digital download platforms (such as OverDrive) that allow users to "borrow" e-books for a specific length of time. When the loan period is over, the e-book is wiped from the user's e-reader. There is currently no equivalent for special libraries.

Academic libraries, on the other hand, tend to use e-book aggregators to provide access to e-books. There are a number of e-book aggregators, including eBrary (www.ebrary.com), MyiLibrary (www.myilibrary.com) and NetLibrary (www.netlibrary.com). These aggregators allow institutions to provide access to e-materials from a number of different publishers.

Challenges for Law Libraries

Law libraries have not been as quick to adopt e-books as public and academic libraries. One important reason for this is that a significant percentage of law library material is simply not available in electronic format. Legal publishers face significant financial and technical challenges when trying to produce electronic versions of their printed publications (see sidebar on page 18).

Another reason law libraries have been slow to adopt e-books is that they must find an e-book model that suits their needs. The public library model is impractical because attorneys typically do not use books in the same way as public library patrons. In the public library model, one client has exclusive access to a book for a specified length of time; in legal libraries, a number of users may need to have access to the same book at the same time. …

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