Contributed by: Caroline Gilson, Associate Director of Libraries and Coordinator of the Science Library with rank of Associate Professor
It’s complicated. That phrase can be applied to many things, I realize (issues related to faith, relationships, what to wear on any given day), but in preparing this column on the broad spectrum of eReaders and eBooks in the higher education environment, it seems particularly appropriate. The idea of an eBook seems simple enough. But it gets more complex when one delves in deeper: issues of access, ownership, cost, availability, ease of use and delivery methods/platforms creep in and muddy the waters. How do librarians, information technology staff, faculty and students sort it out and “make it work?”
As an academic librarian, I take pride in keeping up with technology that will deliver content to campus users. I bought a first-generation iPhone on the day it came out at my neighborhood AT&T store, feeling that was a watershed moment. Something inside me said this was a game changer. The iPhone has gone from novelty to a measuring stick of sorts in a few short years. It broadened the scope of mobile access, and set a standard (I think) for devices yet to be developed.
The iPhone has led libraries to create mobile access to collections. For instance, some libraries have an app or mobile friendly access to the library catalog, subscription databases, (we can show you the mobile version of EBSCO databases if you are interested) and even snazzy building tours via QR codes or augmented reality. Becoming more of a digital, mobile, handheld library also means rethinking access to collections: books and multimedia. Are you streaming or downloading movies from your NetFlix account? What is the future of the eBook in libraries? They’ve been available for over ten years, yet still haven’t caught on like I would have predicted. How will access to digital textbook evolve? Why don’t libraries buy more eBooks? (Kindles for everyone!…?) Are our users ready for eBooks? Are you?
Yet there isn’t yet (or I haven’t found it yet) an easy answer to eBook accessibility for our academic users. The Kindle/Nook/Sony eReader seems to focus mostly on the recreational reading crowd. One service I’ve found to be worth investigating is called OverDrive. OverDrive provides eBook access via multiple formats to libraries, where users can download content to a laptop or iPhone or mp3. This model seems to work with users that have multiple devices. Yet, OverDrive only seems to offer fiction, non-fiction, general topic sources and not so much scholarly or textbook offerings. So I keep searching, as a librarian, for the next best thing for access to eBooks. I pay attention to the ever-changing technology market. I watch the current development of the Notion Ink Adam tablet. I get excited about a SixthSense glove-like device and lanyard (watch Pranav Mistry’s TED talk from November 2009), where one can project digital images onto a book, a wall, a newspaper, a hand or arm. I listen to people in the know about technology, like Bryan Alexander at NITLE (he blogs at http://blogs.nitle.org), or Walter Mossberg, writer of the All Things Digital column for the Wall Street Journal (http://walt.allthingsd.com). I wonder what cool new device is going to come out next week, next month, next year. As great as I think the iPhone is, I don’t think it is It. I don’t think the iPad is It. I don’t think Kindle is It.
I watch our academic community interact with technology. I watch my five-year-old son interact with apps on my iPhone. I talk to and email library colleagues about eBooks and mobile devices. What are they seeing and using? eBooks seem to still be a novel idea, but get low use (or no use). How to solve that? I wait and watch with everyone else. I talk to colleagues and database vendors. I think that access models (readers) will need to change and publishers will need to rethink how they market and present their offerings. Academic libraries and campuses are in an evolving environment when it comes to eBooks and eReaders, and in short, it’s complicated. Feel free to continue the conversation with me anytime (firstname.lastname@example.org)!