Posted by: mhdiaz | June 3, 2011

How Individual Book Buying Experiences are Reshaping Academic Library User Expectations for Ebooks

The following post is the first in a new series from Leslie Lees, VP of Content Development from ebrary.  Academic Ebooks – The Shifting Landscape will discuss changes that are occurring with ebooks and implications for libraries and their users.

Research from Nielsen recently reported the first decline in decades in the number of U.S. households owning television sets from 98.9% to 96.7%. Aside from economic hardships caused by the recession, the other probable reason for the decline is that young people are opting to watch more video content on the Internet and their mobile devices. It is ironic that TV, which has been held responsible for a decline in reading and reader attention spans, is now in the early stages of being disintermediated by video on the web – the new scapegoat for all sorts of cultural and intellectual catastrophe.

It is fascinating how periods of technological and cultural innovation are marked by a rising chorus of discussion about declining attention spans, reduced reading abilities, and the inability of end-users to discover and evaluate information. This sense of crisis typically is accompanied by a feeling of information overload that recurs from generation to generation. Discussion of these types of concerns has even spanned the centuries as chronicled by Ann Blair in ‘Too Much To Know’, her fascinating study of how scholarly information was managed in the Early Modern period.

While the ubiquity of digital content for academic research has created inestimable value in making more information available to more users, it has clearly also contributed to this sense of overload and the insufficiency of user tools and skills to deal with it effectively. Librarians are more than familiar with struggling to teach information literacy and the ability to find and discern relevant information students until, as researchers, they develop a serious stake in improving these skills.

E-books are the latest entrant into the field of digital content. As they have been collected primarily by academic libraries, it has been easy to assume that they would be discovered and used in much the same way as academic journals. While long-form academic monographs have been designed to develop arguments that are read from cover to cover, Ann Blair points out that for centuries academic monographs have also been used in large part as a reference resource. So much for the claims of a shorter attention span in today’s users!

As compared to journals and other forms of academic literature, books are purchased much more widely by individuals for personal use. If academic monographs in libraries had continued to be the only game in town, libraries would have retained more of their influence, but the explosion in the purchase of books for individual use has had a major impact on user expectations.

Apple and Amazon have played a key role in defining how e-books are read…but much more importantly, Amazon has trained users to navigate and evaluate way more metadata in discovering titles and discerning their value to them. Users’ personal experience of discovering e-books has now far outstripped the resources available to librarians to deliver the richness of descriptive metadata and ‘finding’ support that is available to book buyers in their personal experience. Librarians are discovering that they are not setting, but following, users’ expectations even in their areas of core competency. The challenge facing librarians is to offer a comparably rich experience in their environments, but one that is augmented by their expertise in providing appropriate tools and content and context for the discovery and evaluation of academic ebooks. This context ought to include much more descriptive metadata from publishers, book covers, excerpts, reviews, expert ranking, peer review and recommendation and expert (especially local) reviews and recommendations from faculty.

Metadata also has to be “smarter” and structured in ways that forge relationships between users and the resources they seek. Enriched metadata from publishers alone will not manage these expectations, as improving the discoverability of e-books will also require a shift in the way that e-book information is managed across platforms. As an industry, we must recognize that our competition for patron mindshare is not coming from traditional competitors, but instead from those outside the academic space altogether. Librarians are competing for the hearts and minds of their patrons with the likes of Google, Amazon, Apple and Facebook who continue to adapt their platforms to enable a more semantic and socially engaged user experience which cross-pollinates content and brokers relationships between like-minded information seekers. In this complex new world, library software vendors and content providers must similarly adapt their platforms and offerings to help ensure that librarians can meet the vastly enhanced expectations of their users.

For once, we can set aside our fears about user abilities and let the expectations from their personal experience guide us in developing better support tools for their research.


Blair, Ann. Too Much to Know: Managing Scholarly Information before the Modern Age. New Haven [Conn.: Yale UP, 2010. Print.

Stelter, Brian. “Ownership of TV Sets Falls in the U.S.” New York Times3 May 2011. Print.(


  1. While agreeing with the arc of the argument (especially the penultimate paragraph), I think that the challenges presented libraries and librarians in the 21st century have as much to do with maintaining or remodeling current practices (ILL and ebooks to give just one example) as keeping up with the Amazons. We seem to be dealing with an industry (publishing) with whom we have had a pretty convivial relationship – accademic libraries actually buying titles individuals wouldn’t – that is now taken over by rights management lawyers who seem to want to dictate the terms of our surrender of professional practices like borrowing and lending. Obviously publishers want to make the sales they need in the ebook market, but must this be done by making sure every library buys a copy rather than the cooperative model that some still treasure (and which works) of interlibrary loan?

    • Response from Leslie Lees –

      Thanks John. I agree that there are significant challenges in adapting current library practices to ebooks, especially ILL. It is true that often libraries are key buyers of academic ebooks rather than individuals and this is important to consider. It is also the case, however, that some titles that are purchased by both libraries and individuals (eg. recommended readings for courses) present a challenge for publishers because access to library versions has potential to threaten the publisher’s sales more directly. I think we can agree that beyond publishers, these challenges have an influence on all stakeholders and reinforces that publishers, aggregators, vendors and libraries must all work together to ensure that new models can support core library processes such as borrowing and lending. Innovative approaches and business models are needed which meet library requirements, reinvigorate and support publisher viability (many university presses are struggling right now), and leverage the latest technologies (particularly intelligent and flexible DRM) to ensure that value is recognized across the supply and demand chain. More to come on this question. I am planning to discuss further as part of this series.