E-book readers in a mobile-friendly library
Although e-books have hit critical mass amongst consumers in terms of awareness and increasing interest libraries are yet to progress their e-book agendas due to hardware limitations and licensing restrictions.
Alison Brock reported on the joint Open University and Cranfield University e-reader project. The main aim was to explore students working practice of using e-readers and to see what kinds of content was available to them and to see how this could inform the development of library services.
6 participants from undergraduate to PhD level were chosen at both institutions using 4 Sony PRS-505 and 2 iPod Touch (8GB) devices. Students were given the devices for 3 months starting from August 2009. The devices were not preloaded with content. Since the study the Kindle is now available in the UK and the UK launch of the iPad imminent.
Prior to the survey less than half the group had used e-readers.
Students found the devices easy to use and easy to read although no specific testing was carried out with visually impaired students. They also liked the portability and lightweight feel of the devices. The colour screen of the iPod Touch and its multipurpose functionality was appreciated, although it’s highly reliant on wi-fi access.
The weaknesses predictably centred on difficulties in finding and uploading content to the devices and the single-purpose nature of the Sony. Most participants would not buy either model tested even if they would consider an e-reader. Presumably different answers would be received in a post iPad landscape. The main barriers for use were formatting issues, navigation, the inability to annotate or interact with text and how tiring they are to use. There is also no way to link between books or link out to other content.
Similar studies undertaken in the United States and the UK found similar results. The business model for e-readers is still aimed at single users purchasing individual titles for their devices. Although ePub is the most common format it is not used on all devices - Amazon’s Kindle for example. Users cannot transfer purchases from one device to another. Licensing restricts libraries and library users from downloading e-books to mobile devices. Obviously cost is a factor. If e-readers were priced at a more competitive £50 or below £100 it would encourage more rapid take-up and experimentation among libraries to see how they can best be used for educational purposes.
Most of all it is an area of constant flux. Other manufacturers and consumers are waiting to see how the Apple iPad performs in the market. Google has announced a new tablet device and other companies are following suit. Until the hardware develops and is able to meet the study needs of learners and licensing terms change, academic libraries are unlikely to heavily invest in e-readers on a huge scale for the foreseeable future until it is clearer how they will impact the development of library services.