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Magazines > Computers in Libraries > January/February 2013

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Vol. 33 No. 1 — Jan/Feb 2013
The Why’s and How’s of Integrating Downloadable Academic Ebooks
by Matthew J. Buckley and Melissa Maria Johnson

Since ebooks are getting used, it makes sense to ensure that the library provides a full range of functionality to give library users as many options as possible.
There has been a noticeable divide the past few years within the library world regarding electronic books. Many academic libraries have been purchasing or leasing web-based academic ebooks for years. Most public libraries on the other hand (thanks in large part to services such as OverDrive) have directed their attention toward downloadable fiction materials including ebooks and audiobooks. These trends are noticeable on a variety of levels. We have personally noticed more students and faculty using portable electronic devices, and ebook databases now provide more downloading capabilities. This puts academic libraries in an interesting situation with some unresolved questions. Does it make sense to offer full, downloadable academic ebooks for students who may only need to view a chapter or two? Will the downloadable ebooks get much use by academic patrons? How do we handle the various digital rights management (DRM) issues? And perhaps most important of all, how do we educate our users about downloading ebooks and handling DRM issues when we have been offering mainly web-based viewable ebooks?

The simple reality is many vendors previously offered solely web-based ebooks. Now they offer downloadable versions of the ebooks. It may have taken the academic book community a little while to join the downloading bandwagon, but the movement has clearly begun. An example of this trend is the Nova Southeastern University (NSU) libraries, where we work as subject specialist librarians. As of mid-September 2012, the libraries had 77,704 ebooks available in our two largest ebook databases: MyiLibrary and eBooks from EBSCO. Of those ebook titles, 67,122 have downloading capabilities. That means 86% of the ebook titles in our two largest ebook databases have copies that are available for download. It is clear that a diverse academic ebook collection with multiple viewing options has arrived. This article is designed to explain how and why we became more proactive in promoting downloadable academic ebooks in 2012 and beyond.

Why We Care

So why should a library care about downloadable academic ebooks? There are several answers to this question. For starters, it is important for any library to address the needs of its users. These needs are always changing, especially when it comes to technological devices. The movement toward e-reader devices and portable electronics has been happening for quite some time. For example, Apple’s iPad has been available to shoppers for more than 2 years, and devices such as the Kindle have been on the market for about 5 years. Regardless of the device, these products have sold well. According to an article from the Pew Research Center published in early 2012, the percentage of adults who own either a tablet or an e-reader jumped from 18% to 29%. It is clear that people now own and use these devices, and libraries should recognize this fact when collecting materials.

Another factor to consider besides user preference is product change. More academic publishers are offering materials electronically. Plus, many major academic ebook vendors now offer both web-based and downloadable academic ebooks when selecting. Since more publishers offer e-versions, it makes it easy to see why downloadable ebooks can be more than just a fiction-based fad. For example, most of our ebook databases such as MyiLibrary, EBSCO eBooks, and Gale Virtual Reference Library have downloading capabilities to go along with web-based viewable ebooks. It is hard to imagine why most libraries would not want both web-based and downloadable formats. By purchasing both, users would possess as many options as possible to view an electronic book.

Another ingredient to consider for many libraries is population base. The Alvin Sherman Library at NSU has a fairly large student population of more than 20,000 students, and many of them are distance students who may never step foot into the library building. It is important that distance students in particular are given many options when it comes to book viewing. It is one thing to provide access, but it is another to take it a step further and give the students choices. These choices include the ability to view a book on a PC or laptop or to download a title to a device of the student’s choice for a specific period of time.

Finally, maybe the most important point of all is that libraries should pay attention to the usage of downloadable academic ebooks. The bottom line for us is they do get used. The NSU libraries have seen ebook usage on the rise every year since 2008. For example, in the ebook database MyiLibrary, we have seen usage jump from 3,959 in 2008 to more than 15,000 for the 2010–2011 school year. Since ebooks are getting used, it makes sense to ensure that the library provides a full range of functionality to give library users as many options as possible.

What Is Available

For the past several years, many vendors that provide downloadable ebooks focused on the public library market. These titles included mainly popular fiction and nonfiction titles. It is only in the past year that we have seen a concerted effort to provide downloadable academic ebooks. At NSU, there are currently two vendors providing access to a substantial number of downloadable ebooks. One is eBook Collection via EBSCO, formerly NetLibrary, and MyiLibrary. While we currently only have downloadable ebooks available through two vendors, there is no reason to believe this will remain the case. With the competition for shrinking budget dollars in the forefront of most vendors’ minds, ebook providers may see downloadable ebooks as a way to add value to their products. So the potential for more vendors to offer similar resources is likely.

Trying to integrate this new feature, academic librarians now must deal with DRM. The purpose of digital rights management systems is twofold. For one, the system is meant to protect copyrighted material from unlicensed use and access. Secondly, the system is the delivery method for the downloadable ebook. NSU is currently only dealing with Adobe Digital Editions, a free product offered by Adobe Systems, Inc. Currently, there is much debate on DRM with no consensus, and without consensus on DRM, there is the chance academic libraries will be forced to use more than one system. One thing is readily apparent—most DRM systems do not work easily on all devices.

Now the fun begins. Since collection development specialists want to get the most for their investment in materials, downloadable ebooks are more desirable than viewable-only ebooks, on the surface. More and more downloadable titles are being added yearly. The need to market these titles becomes more imperative, but in the age of streamlined downloading, the process of downloading an ebook is surprisingly clunky, especially in the beginning. It is because of the DRM. The copyright holders, rightly or wrongly, appear to be reluctant about the perceived loss of control of their products, hence the DRM.

Initial downloading is currently a multistep process. First, patrons must set up an account on the vendor’s site, e.g., eBook Collection or MyiLibrary. Then, the user must download Adobe Digital Editions and set up an Adobe account. Once all this is set up, the last steps depend on the provider. Some providers allow the user to just click a button to download an ebook. Other systems require the user to add a title to an online bookshelf and then download it. For the purpose of marketability and to induce usage, the process needs to at least appear simple and worth the user’s time.

Issues or Problems

While implementing downloadable ebooks in our library, we faced many considerations. First, DRM forced us to incorporate third-party software into our instruction classes and library guides. We quickly found that loading Adobe Digital was not a feasible option for library computers. Since each downloaded DRM also called for a separate Adobe account, it became linked to one user. Therefore, we are currently unable to help users who do not have personal computers or mobile devices with internet capability. With the proliferation of mobile devices, this may a problem.

Another consideration was how to identify a downloadable ebook in our library catalog. There is no standard field for that designation in a MARC record, so this is a work in progress. At present, users need to access and search the ebook collection to see if an ebook is downloadable. This is a point of major concern. As an academic library, we have multiple ebook collections and depend on our library catalog to serve as a catchall for ebooks. Streamlining the identification of downloadable ebooks through our library catalog is ideal.

From the standpoint of user facilitation, librarians have to become familiar with a variety of mobile devices. In general, librarians excel at familiarizing themselves with new technology. Many academic libraries make it a point to stay ahead of the curve of emerging technologies with an eye toward incorporating them in services. It is unrealistic to believe that we are able to become familiar with every e-reader, tablet, and iWhatever in order to troubleshoot the glitches of transferring or downloading straight to a device. The answer is to become familiar with the most common devices. For instance, librarians need to know that Adobe Digital Editions is currently not usable on iPads. Instead, iPad users have to download the Bluefire Reader app. And one of the most plentiful e-readers, the Kindle, also does not currently support Adobe Digital, so users have to download the item through a USB port. Downloading via a USB port is a different multipart process. This leads to the last consideration.

How technologically savvy is the user? More reference librarians are required to wear the hat of information technology troubleshooter. Now, with the mix of devices and various computer/laptop setups, librarians will be dealing with a multitude of issues. Many times, especially in our library, these issues are resolved over the phone. This means the librarian will not see what is needed but will have to “virtually” walk the user through whatever steps are necessary to download the book. This is where FAQs and tutorials are the most useful. By addressing the most common issues in these formats, the librarian is freed to tackle the harder, less-anticipated problems that may arise.

What Are We Doing

Over the summer months, we decided to address these issues as best we could. The bottom line of the project was one basic idea: Make something that can be so confusing as simple as possible. The fact is that there are things such as vendor interface and DRM products that the library has little control over—what it looks like and how easy the page or product is to understand. We felt the best approach would be to offer noticeable online assistance at strategic points of need. This meant we needed to find ways to clearly identify when ebooks are downloadable through the library catalog and to strategically place a comprehensive library guide on the website, letting our users know what to do and how to do it. The truth is we knew that we would have users who learn in all sorts of ways; some might be visual learners, others might prefer to follow step-by-step printed instructions. So we wanted to create an easy-to-find, one-stop shop. This guide would have the information users may need regarding ebooks: handouts, checklists, instructions, video tutorials, and helpful links.

The guide involved researching and creating materials. Some ebook database vendors have their own printouts, help pages, and video tutorials, which were easy to find on their websites and were attached to the guide. However, the guide still needed materials specific to our library users. Users who download ebooks from a library are not just logging into a library database with their library card credentials; they often need an account with the database as well as the DRM product to help view or transfer the ebook title. Our solution was to create additional instructional material that explained everything right down to the basics, such as having an electronic reading device and creating a database account to transferring an ebook onto a device. That is why the guide has a checklist to show users each piece they need to download an ebook before they even try to download.

The landing page of the guide contains a basic checklist to get a user started, an explanatory introduction, and links to the relevant ebook databases to download materials. Then, the other tabs on the guide provide assistance based on what type of help you want to use. There are downloadable print handouts, video tutorials, and even a section about downloading ebooks from websites. We then linked this guide to several places within the library website where we hoped users would see it. Now, online assistance is located in many different sections at the point of need, in case students or the public need help with downloading materials.

The other ongoing part of this project deals with awareness. We did not want downloadable academic ebooks to be hidden away. Before this project began, if a user clicked on an ebook record in the library catalog or even looked at the descriptions of the ebook databases on the library website, the user would not have known that downloadable ebooks were available; it was not mentioned anywhere. We wanted to address this problem. Many students or library users are probably not going to use the technology if you do not at least let them know it is available. That is why we have upgraded, when possible, some of the ebook cataloging records so they identify whether a title is downloadable or not. This portion of the project is ongoing. We also updated the general ebook database descriptions so that users could clearly read that downloadable ebooks are available in some of the databases.


It was only a matter of time before downloadable ebooks became part of the academic library landscape. The mixture of distance students, the proliferation of mobile devices, and the availability of downloadable ebooks are the factors influencing our collection development decisions, especially since there is currently no price differential between an ebook and a downloadable ebook. With NSU’s large population of distance students, the availability of downloadable ebooks is a terrific convenience.

There are many twists ahead that libraries and librarians will need to compensate for. The specter of being forced to use multiple DRM systems must be considered. Becoming familiar with different e-readers and tablets should be encouraged. And reference departments may want to consider creating guides for users, if they have not done so already. Providing clearly written guides on the downloading process will be invaluable to reference desk librarians and the students. Even before launching our library guide, we were receiving questions at the reference desk about downloading ebooks. When the feature became available, a segment of our population sat up, took notice, and expressed interest. This encouraged us to become more involved with downloadable ebooks. While it is yet to be determined how much use this feature will receive, there is a definite interest, and it is a trend worth following in the foreseeable future.

Matthew J. Buckley  ( is subject specialist for Arts and Humanities at Nova Southeastern University in Fort Lauderdale, Fla. He has worked at NSU for 5 years and has two bachelor degrees from Michigan State University and a M.L.I.S. from Wayne State University.

Melissa Maria Johnson
( is subject specialist for the Social Sciences at Nova Southeastern University in Fort Lauderdale, Fla.

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