Improving Library Services with E-Books: In Addition to Access Anytime and Anywhere, E-Books Offer a Range of Benefits to Readers and Libraries Alike-And More Benefits Are Likely in the Years Ahead

Article excerpt

Last month, during a family trip to Yellowstone National Park, my 9-year-old son asked how high the water from Old Faithful was spraying and why it was so hot and steamy. Armed with my smartphone and the Concise Encyclopedia Britannica application, I was able to touch, search, and tell: 160 feet high, and proximity to magma.

Did I need an e-book app on a mobile device to answer these questions for him? Probably not. A signpost or park ranger could have informed me, but the beauty of my solution was that I easily found the information at an altitude of 7,359 feet in a remote area of Wyoming. That's why, when people ask me why they should invest in e-books, I respond with "24/7 access anywhere and no shelf required."

Growing Popularity

According to the Association of American Publishers, e-book net sales totaled nearly $70 million in January 2011, an increase of 115 percent over the previous year. The AAP's press release (Biba 2011) stated, "E-book sales have increased annually and significantly in all nine years of tracking the category." Surveys conducted by Library Journal (2011) found that 94 percent of academic libraries and 72 percent of public libraries offered e-books last year.

Despite the growing popularity of e-books, special libraries appear to lag behind other types of libraries in acquiring them. Library Journal conducted a survey of special libraries in September 2010 to measure current and projected e-book availability in libraries, user preferences in terms of access and subjects, and library purchasing terms and influences. The results of this survey have not been published, but I was allowed access to a copy and found that of the 122 respondents, 44 percent offered no e-books and 11 percent offered 25 or fewer titles. When libraries without e-books were asked to estimate the time frame for such purchases, a little more than half responded that they had no plans to purchase e-books, while 35 percent said they expected to do so in the next 12-24 months.

Notwithstanding this slow adoption rate, nearly three-fifths of special libraries do offer e-books, and almost one in five hold 1,000 titles or more. Of the libraries that do offer e-books, the average number of titles is 1,100. This is promising news for special libraries' users, as there are many ways e-books can improve services.

Access anywhere, anytime. Libraries and information centers do not need a physical presence in a 24/7 environment. With a growing share of e-books and other library content living in the cloud (i.e., stored on servers and accessed through a digital network), the demands of maintaining physical materials and space are declining. Now, librarians can focus on building collections and providing services.

Library users benefit, too, because e-books can't be lost, stolen, shelved incorrectly, or have chapters or pages pulled from the binding. All content is available regardless of whether others may be using it at the same time (assuming you purchase unlimited access). It is now possible for users to carry the entire contents of the library in their pocket or purse. With a Web-enabled device, the user is at the center of his or her universe of information.

Extending library content beyond a physical structure and fixed hours of operation provides enormous value for our users. The proliferation of mobile devices, 4G networks, and Wi-Fi hotspots streamlines the process, making it more convenient for users to access information on an as-needed basis. Executives in Wi-Fi-enabled airplanes already access electronic data for last-minute reports or presentations. Trial lawyers verify legal citations with laptops or tablet devices in courtrooms rather than in their own law libraries. Doctors prescribe medications and answer patients' questions about side effects by accessing the full text of medical reference books on their mobile devices.

Full-text searching. …