Check It Out! e-Books are coming

Pursuing multiple ways to reduce costs and improve learning and teaching are the goals of the University’s e-book initiative.

Addy Soto, above, head access services librarian at Lehman College Leonard Lief Library, checks out a Sony Reader to Joel Lopez, a graduate student in special education.

Addy Soto, above, head access services librarian at Lehman College Leonard Lief Library, checks out a Sony Reader to Joel Lopez, a graduate student in special education.

Pursuing multiple ways to reduce costs and improve learning and teaching are the goals of the University’s e-book initiative.

For more than 10 years, electronic books have been seeping into university libraries across the country. But with the introduction of readers and other devices — like Amazon’s Kindle, the Barnes & Noble Nook and, recently, Apple’s iPad — e-books have exploded onto the public scene.

Librarians, faculty and administrators are in the midst of experiments and pilot projects, trying to determine how e-books and readers fit into their collections and curricula. Part of the interest in e-books, at CUNY and elsewhere, stems from the high price of textbooks and the hope that digital information can save money for students and their families.

CUNY has partnered with IBM and New York City’s Department of Education on a public school e-textbook initiative, which the University expects will lead to revenue from CUNY-produced supplementary materials (see page 1 and Chancellor Goldstein’s column, page 2). CUNY’s Textbook Savings Committee, led by Associate Vice Chancellor Brian Cohen, is pursuing multiple ways to reduce costs, including electronic textbooks. At the same time, many e-book initiatives are exploring whether these new technologies actually improve learning and teaching experiences, and how they affect the flexibility and convenience of library lending practices.

They’re running into lots of problems.

For example, because there are no universally accepted file formats, many e-books can be read only by specific e-readers. E-books with color or charts may be suitable for some devices, but not readable on others.

“The use of e-books, while of enormous potential, is by no means a settled practice among vendors and publishers, no less than among faculty and students,” says George Otte, CUNY’s director of academic technology. “There is no established business model, no predominant mode or system for instructional content delivered digitally.”

In short, we’re a long way from e-book nation.

Still, most librarians acknowledge the importance of continuous, albeit cautious, forays into the e-book future.

“We’ve just begun. We’re still in the ‘emerging-everything’ stage,” says Kate Lyons, reference and information technology librarian at Hostos Community College. “But more and more content is being delivered this way. We can’t not be part of it.”

In fact, CUNY has been building its digital book offerings for years, says University Librarian Curtis Kendrick. “We already have hundreds of thousands of e-books on the CUNY Online Catalogue,” says Kendrick. “They’re pretty heavily used,” about 400,000 times a year, Kendrick says. These books can be read over the Internet, but not downloaded into e-readers.

Many e-books are available through subscription agreements with companies like ebrary, which aggregate online database collections of books from hundreds of academic and trade publishers. “We’re still in the experimental stage,” Kendrick says, “but even with all the caveats, it’s clear this is where a lot of information will be delivered in the future.”


Perhaps the biggest caveat is the role of e-readers. Librarians at several CUNY colleges have conducted pilot projects over the last year to test whether e-readers are worth investing in.

At Lehman College, for instance, the Leonard Lief Library bought 10 Sony e-readers, says Alevtina Verbovetskaya, the instructional technologies librarian. The readers are available for one-day loan use only within the library, although e-books may be borrowed for up to seven days. Content is provided through sources like Google, as well as companies like OverDrive, another electronic database provider. OverDrive has a one book-one user policy; that is, only one user can check out each copy of a book at a time.

Meanwhile, at John Jay College of Criminal Justice, librarians last summer asked about 160 incoming freshmen to test four Sony e-readers. In small groups, the students learned how to manipulate the readers and evaluated them.

The results from both projects have been decidedly mixed.

At Lehman, the Sony e-reader demonstrated some effective features, such as the ability to change text size and support open, non-proprietary file formats like epub. Although individual users could take notes on the reader, they couldn’t save them once the borrowed device was returned to the library. Overall, “student response has been lukewarm,” says Verbovetskaya, probably because “they’re not yet aware of the program.”

At John Jay, most students liked the devices, although they were initially chagrined that they didn’t use touchscreen technology like their iPhones, according to Maria Kiriakova, the collection development and reference librarian. When asked whether they would prefer to read a book in print or on an e-reader, almost 85 percent said they would prefer an e-reader.

But other issues made e-readers problematic, Kiriakova says. Many e-books already included in John Jay’s digital collection were not readable via the Sony e-reader. Scholarly titles often are not available for e-book readers. E-readers are not fully compliant with regulations to accommodate students with disabilities. And because technologies are changing so fast, how can libraries risk investing in e-readers that may be obsolete in six months?

At Baruch College, digital explorers have tested a variety of e-routes. “We’ve been offering digital books for quite a while, through publishers and aggregators,” says Arthur Downing, Baruch’s chief librarian.

Although most textbook publishers remain wary of libraries — they’d rather sell hard copies to faculty — Baruch has established a partnership with Flat World Knowledge, an unusual publisher that offers educators free online textbooks, as well as low-cost print books and other products. During the last winter session, 84 Baruch undergraduates taking a general psychology course were given free access to multiple formats of the textbook (including print, digital on an e-reader and digital on the Web). “The good news: Students used as many as four formats for different purposes during the course,” Downing says. One third of the students used only a digital version.

At Baruch, the Newman Library is developing an anthology of world literature and circulating iPads with public-domain versions of classic e-book titles. Similarly, at New York City College of Technology and Lehman, English Department faculty members have sought out e-book versions of literature in the public domain so their students don’t have to buy them.

While the e-book market will inevitably change, the basic principles of library management remain. “We have to build a collection of e-books just as we build a stack collection,” says Alycia Sellie, reference librarian at Brooklyn College. That means libraries need to provide e-books that can be downloaded to different e-book devices. And they should look for electronic books that can offer students more than just static print, like quizzes, study guides or interactive features.

The future, then, belongs to flexibility. It may be better, some say, to obtain collections of e-books through licensing agreements with database companies, like ebrary. “Licensing gives you the chance to see what’s popular [among your students], before you buy,” says Monica Berger, technical services and electronic resources librarian at City Tech.

As for e-readers, tablets and mobile gadgets, we’ll eventually see “a convergence of devices” that will enable users to combine many features in one tool, according to Ramesh Ganeshram, CUNY’s assistant director of technology productivity initiatives. For now, libraries “are looking for trends — what works, what’s scalable, what can be expanded upon. The goal is to give as many options as possible.”