Tuesday, April 17, 2007

E-books: plugging and playing in Toronto

"E-books have become my new passion," says Warren Holder, University of Toronto Libraries. Toronto's recent focus on e-books has been motivated by demand from users, from faculty (more in medicine? but also in social sciences) and also from students, who have grown up with the web and expect its immediacy and simplicity (Holder, like earlier speaker Tom Davy, also played video clips of students talking about their research habits: "The physical library? no ... I get out of there as quickly as I can."). Other factors included:
  • inter-campus borrowing (increasing, and less cumbersome electronically)
  • high-usage of short term loan content
  • the need for new acquisition models.
Furthermore, U Toronto's existing subscriptions to e-book packages show that electronic use is more than print use in 58% of cases where a book exists in both formats.

So the University of Toronto - listening to its Google generation - decided "it behooves us to create a single interface to our e-books ... most students don't care who the publisher is, or even whether it's a journal article or a chapter of a book - they just want the content. We want them to be able to plug and play with one search." They are piloting their own platform to host their 20,000 e-books from 5 major publishers (and, longer term, their journals and A&I content). The platform will only contain the content to which the university has access (I do find myself wondering - perhaps unreasonably - if this doesn't throw the baby out with the bathwater: avoiding the frustration of non-licensed dead ends, but at the same time restricting students' view of the wider literature?)

U Toronto's analysis of various usage statistics from its pilot platform is beginning to indicate how students and faculty are using the content, and they intend to begin logging and analysing referring links and navigation between books. Again, current usage patterns across days of the week or months of the year reflects that seen for other types of content (which I take as good evidence that users are format agnostic). Interestingly, reading patterns within ebooks indicate different types of user with different habits (e.g. some read front and then skip to back, others read about half and then skip...), whilst reviewing the evolving top 10 lists demonstrates a real depth and breadth to the range of e-books being used.

During questions, Don Chvatal from Ringgold mentioned the received wisdom that 90% of books in academic libraries are used only once every 10 years, and asked how this would affect U Toronto's e-book purchasing. Holder responded that content is purchased for future possible views, and that such statistics can only become available after you've bought the book. "Our responsibility now", he added, "is to build critical mass, and we're currently getting some good prices for e-books that won't necessarily be available longer-term."

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