From dedicated readers with little available content to an aggregator model and now an accepted delivery channel, e-books have had a somewhat checkered history. Today one can find e-books offered through aggregators such as netLibrary or ebrary as well as from individual publishers such as Springer or Wiley. In fact, as one speaker in a track devoted to e-books said, they have become very successful and are now just another delivery channel with no special characteristics (“books without the ‘e’”). E-books are well entrenched in the academic world and have taken their place next to e-journals. In the future, e-books will move further into the consumer market and the delivery platforms will improve with full color rendering and multimedia support. Consumers will therefore be able to build their own personalized digital library.
Despite reaching a wide acceptance, there is still much we do not know about how people use e-books. The Superbook project now underway at University College London, which is still in the pilot stage, is already providing some interesting insights. As described by David Nicholas, the project Director, e-books were dropped into a scholarly environment to see what would happen. Textbook access is a big issue for students, and e-books make textbooks available to students in a user-friendly fashion that fits their browsing and searching behavior. Until now, e-books have been assumed to behave like e-journals, but this is a dangerous assumption. Nicholas speculates that we may have reached a tipping point and that e-books will be used heavily by students.
In the Superbook project, e-books from three publishers were made available to students at six universities. The logs of student’s sessions were analyzed and user’s comments were collected. In the right environment, e-books proved to be popular; during a three month period, 11,000 pages of information were viewed. The average session length was only 3.5 minutes, showing that much browsing was occurring, but nobody was reading very much online. As much time was spent on searching as on viewing content. And the speculation that e-book usage is different from that of e-journals proved to be correct. E-book sessions were busier; older content was viewed; more usage took place on weekends; and the search facility was not as heavily used.
The Superbook project will be expanded next year to all universities in the UK that wish to participate, which will take it beyond the pilot stage and will provide much more extensive data.
Columnist, Information Today