eBooks in Libraries
Following the influx of portable technologies and the proliferation of modern communication tools, libraries are inventing a future beyond circulating collections, and are becoming a community platform for unique reading experiences and content. Different business models are being pursued and are increasing the chances of success.
When the idea of lending either eBooks or eReaders initially surfaced, it did have its sceptics. Today however, services for portable devices have already been introduced in a number of scientific and academic libraries worldwide. And even though challenges faced both by libraries and vendors remain, recent statistics suggest that eBooks or registered eReaders lending is taking off. In the USA, 67% of public libraries offer free access to eBooks for their customers according to the American Library Association. Usage of eBook devices or of eBooks lending in Europe and in Asia is also high.
The history of the Ebook dates back to the Data Discman (1990) and the Newton Apple (1993). Yet technology has come a long way in order to compensate for libraries’ disassociating themselves from the codex, the original library brand, and its requirements. After the breakthrough of the E-Ink (MIT), and later of the PVI, different eReaders implementing different formats abound; the most common are the PDF, EPUB, and Mobipocket formats which allow for a varied reading experience. EPUB, an open standard based on XHTML and XML, despite allowing individually customized text presents slight problems when displaying formulae, tables and images. Tablets implementing the PDF format, on the other hand, are more precise in presentation, but offer no flash support.
Currently, a licencing model allowing for access control via the IP range is the lowest common denominator for librarians, vendors, third party services (Overdrive, Ebrary, Zinio, Onleihe) or aggregator services (NetLibrary by EBSCO, Ebrary, MyiLibrary). EReaders are registered to one person at a time, and Digital Rights Management is connected to a registered eReader. Storing eBooks on an eReader is frowned upon by publishers; at the same time, Librarians criticize the lack of an Inter-Library loan option for eBooks.
The main challenge, however, is the application of physical paradigms to digital commodities (either born or turned digital): library customers need to be onsite in order to access the eBooks and; libraries are only able to lend one copy of an eBook to one individual at any given time. As the difference between dissemination and duplication gradually fades, the concept of the ‘copy’ loses its value. Concurrently, the notion that libraries own the books they hold — as they do with their physical copies — also becomes blurred.
Various models have been examined and re-visited by vendor initiatives (Elsevier, Springer) that aim towards developing new technologies supporting learning on screen, and the support of emerging new standards such as EPUB3 – enhanced further by interactive elements like video and animated infographics.
As portable device technologies continue to evolve exponentially, the conversion of eReader implemented formats – EPUB to PDF and vice versa – will become less and less erratic, leading to greater interoperability among platforms of suppliers of digital content. The goal, however, of the scientific library remains: to collect, occasionally create and always preserve knowledge, regardless of format, and ensure free access to it for the community.