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UC Berkeley students, faculty experimenting with e-books through new library project
12 Feb 2001

By Kathleen Maclay, Media Relations

Berkeley - Some best-selling authors may rush into electronic publishing with their latest thrillers, but academic institutions such as the University of California, Berkeley, are cautiously investigating the world of e-books.

UC 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 to make them available online to any UC Berkeley student or 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 UC 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 at UC Berkeley's Haas School of Business.

He called the program "very successful."

So far, the "bestsellers" in UC Berkeley's 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 UC Berkeley users who connect to the campus network from work, labs, libraries, laptops, home offices, dorm rooms, apartments or fraternities and sororities.

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 Resumes."

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 UC Berkeley's 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 were enthusiastic about being able 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.

Beth Sibley, a political science and sociology librarian who is working with Ternberg to analyze UC Berkeley's e-book experiment, said changes in this field are immense and constant.

Alan Ritch, UC Berkeley associate university library and director of collections, said in a recent report that digital transformation of printed resources so far is uneven and is "being embraced unequally by scholars, of varying experience and proclivities, within the disciplines."

As UC Berkeley and other institutions - UCLA, UC San Diego, UC Santa Barbara, San Francisco Public Library and Oakland Public Library - experiment with the e-book, none plans to stop buying paper versions, thus escalating budget demands and at least somewhat constricting the variety of materials ultimately available.

"Eventually, the delivery of information resources (texts, images, sound, video) to libraries and users may save staff time and architectural space," Ritch said in his report. "However, during this transitional period ... library operational costs are actually higher than they have ever been."

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.

At the National Information Service for Earthquake Engineering at UC Berkeley, some 10 electronic books have been published and posted at the Earthquake Engineering Library. They include works of several UC Berkeley professors of structural engineering, and an electronic book dictionary of earthquake engineering is due soon.

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, but the collections committee has agreed not to add any new titles for now.

Other universities around the country, including the University of Texas and Vanderbilt, have purchased between 15,000 and 20,000 e-book titles, finding economy and buying power through a consortium of university libraries all testing the electronic field.

"We (UC Berkeley) didn't want to do that, but we might want to in the future," Ternberg said.

Scholarly journals online, meanwhile, are becoming so popular they are "off the charts," said Sibley. UC Berkeley professors Robert Cooter, Aaron Edlin and Benjamin Hermalin worked with computer programmer David Sharnoff to start in 1999 an e-journal operation called bepress.com. It offers online journals featuring cutting-edge research in the fields of macroeconomics and theoretical economics. The electronic publication caught the attention of scholars and publishers with a promise of peer-reviewed publication in as little as eight weeks, rather than the typical two-year wait. Sibley said electronic books may be slower in gaining popularity and use, but she expects that to gradually change.

Ternberg also is a member of a task force studying e-books for the California Digital Library. The group is scheduled to make recommendations on March 14 about what the nine-campus UC system should do with e-books in terms of acquisition of titles, sharing titles, principles for licensing and other issues.

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