Libraries experiment with e-books

By Kathleen Maclay, Public Affairs

02 March 2001 | Some best-selling authors may rush into electronic publishing with their latest thrillers, but academic institutions are cautiously investigating the world of e-books.

Berkeley’s library began a modest experiment with electronic books almost a year ago, spending about $50,000 to pick 835 titles, mainly from the social sciences, and make them available online to any student, faculty or staff member with a library card and a personal computer.

The online collection, chosen from about 15,000 titles available through a company called NetLibrary, is meager compared to the 9 million volumes Berkeley keeps on its library shelves. But the electronic project is viewed as a necessary and important step in keeping current with information as well as with the modes of its delivery.

“The faculty has learned a lot about e-books, and (the librarians) learned about reader behavior, such as that they are intrigued, but not ready to give up print,” said project leader Milton Ternberg, a librarian at the Thomas J. Long Business Library.

He called the program “very successful.”

So far, the “bestsellers” in the experiment are titles in economics, business and the Internet. Economics and business together scored 777 “hits” between April 2000 and late January of this year, according to tallies for the campus’s special electronic titles. The books are accessible online day or night to Berkeley users who connect to the campus network from work, labs, libraries, laptops, home offices, dorm rooms, apartments or fraternity and sorority houses.

Next in popularity are sociology books with 623 hits, then political science with 334 and anthropology with 276.

The title recording the most visits — 63 — so far is “Inventing the Internet,” followed by “Borders in Cyberspace” and “Game Theory.” Rounding out the top five: “Pop Internationalism” and “101 More Best Résumés.”

Ternberg said all the books might be more popular if more people knew about them. Despite efforts to publicize the program on library Web sites and e-mailings to targeted campus audiences, Ternberg and others said many people still are learning about e-books.

The Teaching Library on campus offers a drop-in course, “Finding Books,” that includes instruction about the NetLibrary “self-service” collection.

“Students seem very interested to learn that we have electronic books as part of the library’s collection,” said Aija Kanbergs, an assistant at the Teaching Library. “I think some students use it, especially when our own paper copies of the book are checked out.”

“For example, one anthropology graduate student doing fieldwork in Cuba and missing the UC Berkeley library was enthusiastic about the possibility of having the library with her in the field,” said Suzanne Calpestri, librarian for the George and Mary Foster Anthropology Library. “Other students welcomed the chance to search across the full text of many titles and looked forward to having more online.”

Many scholars see benefits for the electronic monograph with their research, although they don’t see it as a permanent replacement for the traditional paper library, said Calpestri, a member of the group evaluating the project.

Also among the advantages is the speed of locating citations in books, having the information immediately accessible on a desktop computer and easily printed. Users have credited an online review of an electronic book with helping them decide whether to walk or drive to the library later to pick up the hard copy.

Some negatives about the project: only one person can check out, or view, an e-book at a time, some users find it annoying that usage is tracked, and the software for reading a text online doesn’t make for a very comfortable experience. Books also can be kept for just one day.

One of the biggest drawbacks is price. The NetLibrary e-book costs the same as a hardback version, plus a sliding fee to make it available for viewing or checkout. The electronic book costs 15 percent of the purchase cost for the first year. After that, the cost declines all the way to 3 percent in the sixth year. Or, an institution can pay the purchase price — plus 50 percent of that price tag — to have the book available online forever.

Electronic book boosters include those in the technology field, Ternberg said, many of them anxious to have more computer manuals online because paper versions wear out so fast.

Ternberg said e-books should benefit from the passage of time.

“There’s a whole generation coming up that is so tuned in to reading and doing everything by computer,” he said, predicting it will be less fond of the paper book than are many current researchers and readers. And others less enamored with the digital age simply will become more comfortable with the e-book as they use it more, he said. The software available to read electronic books also is steadily improving, he said.

Ternberg said the program likely will continue for at least the next couple of years.


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