E-Books in Libraries: Some Early Experiences and Reactions

By Helfer, Doris Small | Searcher, October 2000 | Go to article overview
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E-Books in Libraries: Some Early Experiences and Reactions


Helfer, Doris Small, Searcher


Like many other librarians across the country, I've noted increasing mention of e-books in the library literature since 1998. I've read lots about e-books, e.g., Stephanie Ardito's excellent article in this very magazine ["Electronic Books: To 'E' or No to April 2000, pp. 28-39, http://www.infotoday.com/searcher/apr00/ardito.htm]. But I've not seen or heard much about what happens when libraries actually start using them. So I decided to do a little investigating and see what lessons we could learn from libraries integrating e-books into their collections.

Although e-book technology has been ready since the early '90s, it didn't take off until recently. Reasons vary, but perhaps the biggest obstacle to adopting to e-books is the conviction of most readers that there's nothing wrong with old-fashioned books. Given that belief and the hefty price tag for both the hardware and the software for digital versions of books, only the wealthy and technologically enamored started signing up. Most people could not imagine themselves lying on the beach reading their trash novel or even reading in bed using a laptop or PalmPilot. Computer screen technology had to get a lot better and a lot cheaper before most people would even begin to entertain the notion of e-book reading. In 1999, downloads of e-books added up to a mere 1 percent of the $12 billion spent buying books online, according to Forrester Research, a Cambridge, Massachusetts, company tracking technology trends [Terrell, Kenneth; U.S. News & World Report, 01/31/2000, Vol. 128 Issue 4, p. 58]. So I guess most peo ple feel the same as I did about cuddling up with a good e-book.

Nevertheless, things have begun changing, making e-books a much more palatable option. In August 1998, netLibrary [http://www.netlibrary.com] was founded. This privately held company has attracted funding from a wide array of sources, venture capitalists, as well as Internet and media companies such as McGraw-Hill. In the 2 years since its founding, netLibrary has worked to provide an end-to-end solution that includes everything from digital conversion to distribution. netLibrary has focused on helping librarians make it easier for their patrons to use e-books. As we went to press, netLibrary had filed for an Initial Public Offering (IPO) with the Securities and Exchange Commission for $82 million. The filing indicated netLibrary would spend the money on acquiring rights to more book titles for conversion, as well as other corporate purposes. Its new NASDAQ symbol is EBKS.

In September 1999, NIST (National Institute for Science and Technology) held its second annual conference on e-books [http://www.itl.nist.gov/div895/ebook99]. As you would expect, conference attendees included such e-book companies as 24/7, Rocket Books, and netLibrary, but also drew librarians such as Cindy Hill of Sun Microsystems, who was interested in learning about e-books for potential inclusion with library content. Cindy attended the conference because a previous manager had asked her to follow developments on e-content, which the manager thought might have great potential at Sun Microsystems. Cindy highly recommended the conference, feeling she got her money's worth from the last one. The 3rd Annual conference by NIST was held September 25-27, 2000.

Sun Shines on netLibrary

At last year's conference, netLibrary and Cindy Hill began discussions which led to the Sun Library's choosing netLibrary to work on integrating e-books into the Sun Library offerings. Many e-book vendors are very interested in working with corporate libraries, especially technologically focused ones like Sun Microsystems. Cindy chose to work with netLibrary for many reasons. netLibrary was the most eager to work with Sun Microsystems and could deal with Sun's UNIX platform. netLibrary had the biggest content among the e-book vendors surveyed.(netLibrary claims to be the biggest provider of e-book content by far, having over 25,000 books as of August 2000.

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E-Books in Libraries: Some Early Experiences and Reactions
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