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Celebrating the ebook mess

I am leading a panel at the Library Journal Virtual Summit, ebooks: Libraries at the Tipping Point.

Our panel description:

School Library Without Walls: New Content, New Collections
In the school environment, ebooks provide new opportunities for curriculum support, allowing content to be accessed from the library to the classroom to the home. This panel will jump into some of the major issues around ebooks in schools: making ebooks play well with the rest of the collection, promoting ebooks to other educators, and experiments with handheld devices.

As I get my slides together  I am coming to the conclusion that every way I look at the ebook scene, it’s a mess.  And I am seriously confused about its direction.  Currently, I have no wisdom worth sharing.  Nevertheless, here I go.

ebooks are big, and getting bigger, and we need to think a lot smarter than I have been thinking.  Back in July, Amazon announced that for three months, Kindle ebook sales outnumbered sales of hardbacks. Simon & Schuster is launching a new media house for children’s interactive digital books.

I see a number of reasons to e-celebrate and here they are:

  • portability
  • ability to store lots of titles with no added backpack weight
  • search capabilities
  • bookmarking, highlighting, and annotating features
  • dictionary support
  • lower prices
  • digital delivery/immediate download gratification
  • ability to move your books across your devices
  • adjustable font size
  • audio features
  • privacy (no covers show)
  • potential for currency and updating
  • a certain coolness factor

But busting my happy ebubble at this tipping point are a few little concerns.

First, for those ebooks that we would likely read or need cover-to-cover (fiction, popular nonfiction, and textbooks):

1. Reading device choices are confusing and overwhelming.  A number of articles and posts have created matrices comparing features, but no real standard yet exists.  And, at this point, that may be a good thing. But, with the exception of works in the public domain, freely available in unencrypted formats, it seems that different titles are available for different devices.  etextbooks, which would lighten the load for so many of my students and hopefully bring down prices, are not available for all devices.  For instance, among those offering texts are Barnes and Noble’s Nook and iPad, but our pilot Kindles do not.

Here’s a little look at the device/reader confusion on my own iPhone.

2. No really helpful school or library model has emerged for distribution.  Kindle appears to limit downloads of the same title to six devices.  You can create several accounts, but a whole class or a library-specific plan would be nice. I want to use the devices for book club and lit circles and to circulate multiple copies of hot items.

3. Nook supports ebook checkouts from local public libraries via Adobe Digital Editions, but I am not sure the others do.  It would be cool for students borrowing school devices to also borrow titles available from their public libraries.

4. And then there are predictions that the iPad, and other portable devices that do ebooks attractively with color and media and lots of other things too, may blow a few of the others out of the market.  And you can load apps for those other readers on your iPad.  (Did I mention how I am lusting for an iPad?)

5. And then there are publisher worries of piracy issues with the iPad as an ereader.

As for the no-reader-necessary ebooks. (Curricular research, reference, nonfiction, lit crit essays,as well as classic fiction and sneak peaks into new stuff)

1. I worry continuously that my students are not making enough use of the free and subscription ebooks available to them.  Our AP U.S. History class has made great use of Google Books when I point them to it. And so I grab titles from ebook web portals and our subscription databases and pull them into relevant pathfinders. I embed them wherever else they make sense.  For instance, I’ll embed a digital edition of Hamlet on the Hamlet Remixed lesson and for an art project, I’ll grab public domain titles on Greek pottery.

2. I play with the digital equivalent of face-out shelving, regularly embedding ebooks on our homepage to advertise classics and new titles and other great reads.  I try to embed our Gale ebook search box nearly everywhere, but I don’t think that button attracts as much action as it should.  I’ve also created  wiki and thumbnail pathfinders to help me and our students find the major portals.

3. All this ebook pointing to and embedding action is a bit of work, but I think it’s worth it.  And I wish I could embed titles of those subscription books too.  For instance,  I can link to the netLibrary search box, but I can’t seem to link to or embed individual titles.

4. I worry that even though I try to get my reference ebooks loaded in my catalog, my catalog is not always my students’ starting place for research–often it’s those pathfinders and databases–and I am not certain students will go to the trouble of opening them there in the catalog.  And most times the link to the fulltext appears on the very bottom of the catalog record.  I need to figure out how to fix this.  Why can’t they open right away right in the catalog?

5. It appears that one vendor is about to dominate the ebook market as a jobber with its ebook publisher agreements and its wealth of attractive, interactive, cataloged titles.  That’s a lovely thing, probably.  But should we worry about one vendor’s dominance?

6. It appears that that one vendor has its own circ/cat system that will likely dominate the industry with seamless ebook management and distribution. What happens if you don’t happen to have that circ/cat?

7. One of the best and richest subscription ebook collections, netLibrary, has a licensing system that drives my students crazy.  It kinda follows a physical library model.  My students used to opening the same article simultaneously across a whole class or grade are unused to and frustrated by the message:  We’re sorry.  Your library’s copies of this eContent is currently in use.  You may use one of the option(s) below.  1. View the table of contents of this title now. 2. Request to be notified when this title becomes available.

8. At this moment only one of my favorite reference ebook vendors, Gale, has a mobile ebook app. I want them all on my students’ phones.

9. Will the future of ebooks be vendor- and/or platform-driven?  Will librarians have any voice at all in how it all shakes out?

10. At this stage, based on informal polling, my students are divided.  While some love their personal Kindles and other readers, others prefer the feel and smell and legibility of physical text.

So, while we wait for the market to shake out, while we wait for school and library business models to emerge, it’s probably best to jump in, to pilot readers and digital purchases for our catalogs, and to point to, embed and share.

It’s probably best to enjoy reading in all its glory, on all its varied emerging platforms.  And to get young readers used to change.

Joyce Valenza About Joyce Valenza

Joyce is an Assistant Professor of Teaching at Rutgers University School of Information and Communication, a technology writer, speaker, blogger and learner. Follow her on Twitter: @joycevalenza


  1. Doug Johnson says

    Hiya Joycie,

    I might also add the concern about whether e-books and e-book collections are being purchased or rented. For rented collections, what happens if the library’s budget shrinks??? I’m looking forward to all the wisdom in next week’s session!


  2. Thank you for putting into words many of the thoughts I’ve been having about eBooks. I’ve been hesitant, given the lack of a library model for this, to get our library too involved with eReading. But you’re right, “it’s probably best to jump in.” We can’t ignore the fact that many kids like to read this way. The key thing is that they like to read, and we should meet them where they are.

  3. You wrote:

    “Nook supports ebook checkouts from local public libraries via Adobe Digital Editions, but I am not sure the others do. ”

    Sony eReaders allow for library checkouts via Adobe, too!

    I agree, that the ebook market is promising, but is not user friendly at this point. All the companies involved are more interested in making money than customer service/satisfaction. It took me forever to finally be able to borrow ebooks and audiobooks from my public library – which uses Overdrive. And if it is so hard for me, a techie and early adopter, think how difficult it is the “average” user! or our students who have shorter attention spans and lower frustration thresholds!

    I also wish the ebook market would move to one standard format that worked across multiple platforms. When I learned that Sony was moving to ePub format, I was thrilled. That was until I learned the books I bought from them still wouldn’t work on my other ebook devices (iPhone and Kindle). WHY!!!

  4. I, too, struggle with some of the issues you’ve addressed regarding e-books. I’ve just added 500 new print books to the library shelves; not because they’re tied to the curriculum (for the most part), but because I think our students would like to read them. Right now, any of our 1400 students can walk in and walk out with as many as they’d like (and they do!) I haven’t seen an e-book model that works for what we need — short term loans — for the same cost as what we’re doing now. Independent reading is a personal experience, with hundreds of variables, and I can’t find a system that satisfies all of our readers needs better than buying the wide variety of books they want.

    Curriculum is another story; I can very much envision a school in which every student’s textbooks are delivered digitally. We’ve been doing it for years, via specialized databases. I continually tell our teachers that our databases are some of the best values in education today; for the same cost as 5 print textbooks, we can give the entire school access — we just have to keep the network running.

  5. Joyce,

    Well said. I just finished writing an article about ebook how to’s, but I have reached some of the same conclusions.

    It is a muddle but one just pretty much has to plunge in, survey what’s working for your own school/students, and then follow that trail until the market “shakes out” I think.

    I do think vendors need to pay attention to the role of libraries in the e-book realm, however. Our local public library got so upset about the lack of “check out” ability of many ebooks that they posted a sign of complaint on their door for all their patrons to read and contemplate.

    Looking forward to the e-book seminar!

  6. Is the pub industry waiting for hackers before they get together or share a universal device ,or will someone bundle the various models in a pkg notebook format for ed. sales? We must be waiting for India to do it.. Personally I want all on my laptop, which weighs no more than a book and open sideways for comfort and also is my only phone and wallet. …

  7. “ebooks are big, and getting bigger, and we need to think a lot smarter than I have been thinking. Back in July, Amazon announced that for three months, Kindle ebook sales outnumbered sales of hardbacks.”

    It is for this reason that I decided to be an “early adopter” and purchased 30 Nooks for my public, middle school library. This early adoption is also why I went with the Nook as opposed to the Kindle, etc. In this instance, being able to pick up the phone for support, or just knowing that I could stop by the store after school, if I had a question, was an important part of the equation. This way, I don’t feel quite as alone in this process.

    I don’t know about you all, but we already have students with their own personal devices – wandering the school – using the internet as their library instead of coming in here to find books. I agree with the other commenter who said that reading is an intimate and personal experience that is impacted by numerous variables, and therefore, I think there will always be a need and desire for print books. However, I think we all can remember the day when audiobooks and playaways seemed like strange, foreign technologies. eBooks will sooner, rather than later, just be a part of what we do.

    Anyway, I’m heartened to see a that a group of really smart people is taking the time to discuss this important topic. It’s nice to know that others are thinking about this too. I will likely need your help as I take this plunge.

    Many thanks,

  8. Floyd Pentlin says

    Joyce – I’m impressed with the number of apps on your iPhone for reading but my question is do you actually read on your iPhone? Is it because I’m old? I can’t seem involve myself in reading on my iPod touch. I find it annoying and can stay with it only for a short time. Are you/ are students able/willing to read for long periods of time on a mobile device?

  9. Should every kid get a Kindle (or Nook, or Sony e-reader)? At least one New York lawmaker thinks so. His views are the topic on PBS Need To Know — No mention of libraries, however; just textbooks and curricular materials. Which underscores my primary challenge; how do we support students’ individual reading needs with these devices?

  10. The ebook phenomenon is fascinating. Also an early adopter, I love my Kindle for personal use. As an elementary school librarian, however, I feel it is rather flimsy for student use – at least at the elementary level. I have had to have my unit replaced and discussions with Amazon leave me wondering if the Kindle could handle being stuffed in a backpack. Pressure on the screen causes permanent damage.

    I had to get a Sony Reader (okay, I have 2) in order to download library books. You can use certain formats from the public library on the Kindle but it requires some strange python scripts – much too confusing for school use. I do find the Sonys much sturdier. I imagine they would hold up quite well to student use.

    While I can see how these single function ebook readers meet the needs of those of us in K-12 education, when I asked my college-aged daughter if the Kindle could help her lessen her backpack load she said that it wouldn’t do the trick. She frequently needs to have multiple texts open at once and it is not quick or easy to flip between texts on an ereader. Enter the ipad.

    Promoted, outfitted, and used properly the iPad has the potential to be the perfect tool for college students. They can have multiple texts open as well as an in-process paper. Highlighting and moving between the texts requires just a flick. Obviously the internet connectivity and various apps will allow researching.


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