E-Books and New Library Service Models: An Analysis of the Impact of E-Book Technology on Academic Libraries

Article excerpt

This article will analyze the implications of e-book technology on academic libraries. Although we are at a very early stage of e-book evolution, business models, standards, and supporting technology are under development that will dramatically affect libraries and librarians. Librarians and administrators therefore must understand thoroughly these trends in order to apply effectively the resulting innovations within their institutions. As Martrell states, "... librarians must begin to design an imaginative, easily identifiable space in cyberspace as the centrality of the library as a physical phenomenon slowly fades."[1] Improving library service by extrapolation from existing services, doing the same things faster and better, will provide incremental improvements but will not move us quickly to that "identifiable space" of which Martrell writes.

Effectively introducing e-books into a library has significant implications on our users, our existing services, and how we do business. The capabilities and the limitations of the e-book and related technologies therefore are used in this article to provide a framework for examining the implications of this technology on service in academic libraries. It is the author's view that we must understand not only the technology but also the end-to-end process that will transform the capabilities of the technology into an effective service. An example will help illustrate how we cannot just "plug-in" a digital innovation into existing services without addressing the broader process and technological environment.

An Example--Large Digital Objects

Most university libraries are beginning to amass a sizable collection of digital materials that include e-books, dissertations, journal articles, numeric data, and digital maps. [Note: The term "e-book" will be used in this paper to designate the content of the book that is represented in some digital format such as PDF or the XML-based Open eBook Publication Structure.[2] For simplicity, in situations where the context is clear, the term "e-book" also will be used to refer to the reading device. In cases where the context is not clear, "e-book reading device" will be used to refer to the hardware/software platform which is devoid of content.] Much of this digital material comes in the form of what could be called a "large digital object." For purposes of this article, a large digital object is a library information source that is contained in a computer file which is larger than 1.4 MB (i.e., the object won't fit on a diskette). From a user's perspective, these large digital objects are difficult to access and use, given existing processes and technological capabilities within libraries.

Recently, a patron came to the reference desk at Rutgers University Libraries (RUL) and asked how she could get a copy of one of the books from EEBO (Early English Books Online--www.lib.umi.com/eebo), a collection of some 125,000 titles from the medieval period that RUL has licensed from Bell and Howell. The EEBO service allows patrons to search and actually download a copy of a book to their local computer. The books are typically in PDF or djvu (www.djvu.com) format and often can be in the order of 10 to 20 MB or larger in size. The choices for this student to "check out" the digital book were: (1) go to her home computer and download the file over a slow voice-grade telephone line; (2) buy a zip disk and then find a public computer at the university that had a zip drive and download the book; or (3) print the book (perhaps several hundred pages) at one of the computer labs on campus. None of these solutions was very satisfactory for the patron.

In this advancing digital library era, we are tantalizing our users by offering rapid access to digital sources and simultaneously frustrating them by not providing effective end-to-end processes that enable ease of use. The student scenario described above will occur more frequently as we buy more digital book collections. …