Everyone who works in the Milligan College Library has had the following experience. A student asks for help finding a book, we go over with them to the catalog to search their subject. When scanning the results list, the student finds an item they like. We mention that it is an electronic book. The student sighs and asks if we have a “real” version of the book. By “real” they mean, “Do we have the book in print?” We sigh and try to explain the strong points of an electronic book. But we know in our hearts why students are reluctant to use our collection of electronic books (which now exceeds 73,000 titles–approaching 50% of our entire book collection in all formats!). The interfaces are clunky, require too much clicking, and on-screen readability is poor.
Libraries have been purchasing electronic versions of books for over a decade. While many librarians were aware of user reluctance to use them, libraries continued to buy ebooks because of convenience and other advantages, including attractive pricing. And because libraries continued to purchase ebooks, vendors often felt little pressure to improve their products. NetLibrary, the largest source of ebooks in the Milligan Library collection, has done little to improve their interface in the past 10 years.
In 2007 Amazon.com released the Kindle for $399, and the ereader/ebook world as we knew it began to change. This was not the first attempt at an ereader. I remember seeing some Sony products at a library conference over 10 years ago. But they were too expensive, had too few book choices, and were unwieldy. They never caught on. It seems Amazon did their homework and figured out what features people really wanted in an ereader, and the types of books people wanted to read. They had the ability to deliver on both by leveraging their well-developed online book distribution system and massive purchasing power to negotiate Kindle-compatible editions with publishers. Kindles have also continued to drop in price. Amazon just released an ad-supported Kindle for $114, a price that will likely fall to under $100 by Christmas. Amazon has also extended its reach by providing Kindle book reading software applications that work on various computer, smartphone, and tablet devices. I’m not necessarily promoting the Kindle. Its proprietary (closed) file format is especially problematic for use in a library context. But Amazon has probably been the most successful to date in raising the profile of ebooks to the general public by releasing a viable, easy to use, and relatively inexpensive reading device into its hugely popular online marketplace.
Now that an increasing number of library users have experienced the wonders of ereaders, they are even more frustrated by the limitations of ebooks available from academic libraries. They want user-friendly interfaces that work on their ereaders and other mobile devices (e.g., smartphones and tablet computers). In short, they want the “Kindle experience” when accessing ebooks from the library.
That experience may be getting closer to reality. About a year ago, NetLibrary was purchased by EBSCO. You may already be familiar with this company through the use of its popular library-provided EBSCOhost journal databases—ATLAS, CINAHL, Education Research Complete, Humanities International Complete, PsycINFO, and others. When Milligan librarians learned that NetLibrary was purchased by EBSCO we were hopeful that they would work to make the product more attractive for our users.
Last summer EBSCO began surveying all NetLibrary libraries asking for feedback on ways to improve the interface. Based on the questions EBSCO was asking, the library staff was cautiously optimistic that NetLibrary would finally be getting a much-needed makeover in the right way. We were not disappointed. A new NetLibrary interface will be rolled out over the summer utilizing the EBSCOhost database platform. We have seen previews and demos. While not absolutely perfect, the interface is much improved and easier to navigate. There is built-in note taking, dictionary look-up, citation creation and export, and enhanced printing.
Most exciting, we have learned that EBSCO is developing an app for iPhone/iPad and Android mobile devices that will, via a personal Adobe Digital Editions account, enable NetLibrary ebooks to be downloaded (essentially “checked out”) on to your device for a specified period of time! To accompany these changes, EBSCO is retiring the NetLibrary moniker, and is simply calling the service eBooks on EBSCOhost.
Watch this blog for further updates as this story continues to unfold!