D-Lib Magazine
July/August 2001

Volume 7 Number 7/8

ISSN 1082-9873

E-books and Their Future in Academic Libraries

An Overview


Lucia Snowhill
Social Sciences Collection Coordinator
Davidson Library
University of California, Santa Barbara

Red Line



The University of California's California Digital Library (CDL) formed an Ebook Task Force in August 2000 to evaluate academic libraries' experiences with electronic books (e-books), investigate the e-book market, and develop operating guidelines, principles and potential strategies for further exploration of the use of e-books at the University of California (UC). This article, based on the findings and recommendations of the Task Force Report [1], briefly summarizes task force findings, and outlines issues and recommendations for making e-books viable over the long term in the academic environment, based on the long-term goals of building strong research collections and providing high level services and collections to its users.


What will make e-books a viable part of academic library collections? What features, rights, business models, hardware and software standards are needed to meet the goals of large academic library systems to support open scholarly exchange? The University of California's California Digital Library formed an EBook Task Force in August 2000 to investigate the e-book market and develop guidelines, principles and strategies for making e-books a viable part of the University's digital collections. Primarily concentrating on the commercial availability of e-books, the Task Force researched the state of the e-book market by participating in e-book vendor trials, conducting literature searches, attending conferences and workshops, and surveying several academic libraries about their e-book experiences. This article summarizes the Task Force findings about the status of the current e-book market and technologies, and some of the experiences of other academic libraries. It also highlights elements and strategies we determined to be important for future academic use of e-books.

While electronic books and texts have been available for some time for selected public domain titles, only relatively recently have electronic texts been packaged and offered commercially as electronic books. It is the shift to the commercial production, sale, and distribution of e-books that has changed how libraries need to deal with e-books, and what prompted our investigation.

Electronic books offer creative possibilities for expanding access as well as changing learning behavior and academic research. Content can always be accessible, regardless of time or place, to be read on PCs or on portable book readers. Books need never go out of print, and new editions can be easily created. One can carry several titles at once on a portable reader and, over time, build a personal library. Features such as full text searching, changeable font size, mark-up, citation creation, and note taking will enhance usability. Print text can be integrated with multi-dimensional objects, sound, and film to create a whole new kind of monographic work.

Despite the considerable promise of e-books, our task force concluded that all the elements that would make the e-book market viable are not quite in place. The partnerships in the market, development of standards, software and hardware features, and business models are still regularly changing. Elements that we considered important to study regarding academic use of e-books are:

  1. Content
  2. Software and Hardware Standards and Protocols
  3. Digital Rights Management
  4. Access
  5. Archiving
  6. Privacy
  7. The Market and Pricing
  8. Enhancements and Ideal E-Book Features

1. Content

Although there are vendors such as Questia, netLibrary, Ebrary and publisher initiatives that are aggressively building undergraduate e-book collections, the corpus of academic level e-books available is still small and not yet representative of many disciplines. Collection building, so far, is hampered by publishers' conservatism in providing rights to titles for e-book distribution and vendors' costs to reformat content from proprietary versions. At the academic level, subject areas with a broader customer base, such as computer science, business, and reference, are growing most rapidly. The current mindset is to replicate the print version of a book, but future development needs to recognize the potential scholarly significance of increased integration of unconventional media with text in e-books.

Academic researchers need to rely on authenticity and integrity of content. E-book content should match any print version and include all its elements: text, graphs, and illustrations. We anticipate that academics will increasingly incorporate information that can only be presented as non-print media (e.g., visualizations, interactive content, etc.). Content needs to be separated from access and manipulation features, and needs to be transferable, in a non-proprietary format, into a variety of software and hardware readers, both to offer readers a choice of additional features, and to make it possible for libraries to loan e-book content.

2. Software and Hardware Standards and Protocols

Non-commercial monographic electronic texts for scholarly exchange have been available on the Internet since the early years of UNIX file exchange, file transfer (FTP), gopher and, finally, hypertext transfer (HTTP) protocols. The presentation and use of electronic texts have been based on the capabilities and limitations of personal workstation hardware equipped with freely available web browsers and browser plug-ins.

Currently, there is no established standard for an interoperable e-book format for commercially produced e-books that addresses publishers' needs to support commercial end-user distribution and that also enables added value for the consumer. At this point, although publishers are creating books electronically, more often than not text is created in a proprietary form that requires reformatting or scanning of the print version for adaptation to an individual vendor's system. Of the current formats, large vendors are using HTML, XML or PDF as defaults.

To serve a large and varied academic clientele and to build a strong scholarly collection for long-term access, electronic books must be provided in a standards-based format that includes:

  • Non-proprietary software and hardware for interoperability of files
  • Identifiers
  • Metadata
  • ADA compliance.

The most promising standards are being developed by the Open Ebook Forum (OEB) as the Open eBook Publication Structure [2], which would ensure interoperability with both PC and portable reading devices. The structure will include metadata, identifiers, and a file structure for both software and hardware so that publishers can provide content without having to reformat it for each reading system. Although the current framework does not yet account for academic peer review or recognize the potential increase in unconventional multimedia integration with text, its elements of interoperability would make a significant step in the viability of e-books. Another element critical to libraries that is needed in the Structure is the element of non-proprietary usability of content, which would allow sharing or loaning information.

A pragmatic factor in using e-books is the ease of reading and using them, yet e-book hardware devices are still not quite practical or cost effective enough to penetrate very deeply into the market. A variety of devices are being developed to replicate some of the virtues of printed monographs, including portability and network-independence, so that e-books themselves will function on a variety of platforms. The two basic kinds of e-book readers on the market today are the full-sized reader and the palm-sized reader. Currently, all readers use proprietary file formats.

Given the range of users in an academic environment, it will be important that e-books are not hardware or software dependent. Libraries will undoubtedly be providing technical support for multiple online and portable reading devices. Until recently, electronic books have been made available on multi-purpose workstations running web browser clients best suited to end-user delivery of brief texts that can easily be printed out. These are not practical or desirable for the much longer monograph.

3. Digital Rights Management

One of the most critical elements in the development of electronic publishing that will impact libraries involves digital rights management systems (DRMS). Still being developed, DRMS are either hardware or software (or both) that enforce control over intellectual property, such as limit by user, time, fee, and/or extent of content. Although similar controls have existed in the licensing of electronic journals, the length of book content and the concerted effort by publishers to establish such software for e-books make this issue more pressing. Due to publishers' concerns about rights, to date e-book vendors are normally able to offer only limited usage rights for printing, downloading and copying. Normally, interlibrary loan is not allowed, and classroom use is not always allowed.

The degree of control e-book publishers choose to exercise over the access, sharing and loaning of intellectual property will make e-books either more or less compatible with the free flow of information needed in the scholarly setting. To support open research, libraries will need "ownership" or "first sale" rights that allow perpetual access and fair use, such as classroom use and the ability to loan the textual content (without value-added features) to other libraries. It will not be feasible to create a print copy of entire monographs for interlibrary loan, as is done for journal articles. Without lendability, e-books become supplementary to any print version required for archiving and interlibrary loan. When the market evolves to a point where a print version is not also available, libraries will need to have the capability of "loaning" and archiving e-books.

Major DRMS developments that warrant continued monitoring are:

  • ONIX, a book industry standard for communicating product information, including DRMS.
  • Adobe Acrobat Web Buy, controlling access to PDF documents.
  • XrML, a joint effort of Xerox and Microsoft
  • Open Digital Rights Language (ODRL), a project of the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C).

4. Access

In addition to standards allowing interoperability and "ownership" through digital rights management, as discussed above, issues of access include user awareness and the ability to accommodate simultaneous users.

So that researchers can readily identify e-books, libraries must be able to integrate titles with other formats in catalogs and integrated library systems, in standardized forms of bibliographic information and in metadata, such as MARC records and other appropriate metadata. Standardized identifiers and metadata will also be necessary to integrate e-books into normal workflows of integrated library systems for functions such as order, payment, cataloging and circulation. Vendor-supplied metadata should also be able to accept open URL queries.

Currently, vendors working with libraries use a one-copy-one-user model, following a traditional print monograph purchase model. The number of simultaneous users for e-book titles will become an issue, particularly in consortial arrangements. Depending on the type of information being purchased, a single user may not be using the entire book text, but only querying a portion of it. A single chapter in an edited work may be what is needed, rather than the entire volume. Ways to accommodate partial book use by simultaneous users need to be factored into licensing.

5. Archiving and Long Term Access

Two of the roles of academic libraries are building research level collections and acting as archives of research information. Currently, e-book vendor purchase models allow some flexibility, such as a premium price for perpetual access (and potential archiving) versus more modest pricing for annual access to a revolving group of titles. The ability to manipulate an e-book collection easily to eliminate older editions is attractive where currency matters. In other disciplines where long-term research is essential, assurance of perpetual access will be vital.

6. Privacy

Some e-book vendors are creating individual user accounts to track which titles an individual has checked out, and to create "My Library" type features. These individual accounts on the vendor's web site may infringe on privacy, since it would be possible for vendors to report exactly what an individual had accessed in the vendor's system. Users should not have to create individual accounts with vendors, but should access and check out e-books via their local library system in a way that acts as a black box to vendors and publishers.

7. The Market and Pricing

The business models of major e-book vendors so far claim a role for libraries as conduits to their customers, but it is not clear that libraries are truly considered a viable part of most marketing plans. At this point, there are only a handful of vendors, such as netLibrary, that offer e-books to libraries--particularly with academic content. Publishers have been conservative in moving into the e-book market, and direct publisher offerings are only recently beginning to appear. Library book vendors, such as Baker and Taylor, are beginning to make plans to offer e-books as part of library approval plans and profiles. The viability of e-book vendors is also still uncertain. Since the Task Force investigations began, two vendors delayed start-up (one is still not operating), one vendor has discontinued its product, and another stopped accepting new library subscriptions.

Vendors offer an array of business models for e-book selection, including:

  • Print on demand
  • Flat monthly subscription to a vendor's complete database
  • Free browsing of a vendor's database with fees for printing and downloading
  • Personalization (creation of one's own document by selecting segments/chapters from several sources)

Pricing options include:

  • One-time purchase of a title with a premium for perpetual access
  • Purchase of a title with annual access fee premium
  • Annual subscription fees access with ownership
  • Annual subscription fee access without ownership.

For libraries, pricing for e-books should include two separate and distinct elements:

  • An initial one-time purchase price, less than the equivalent print version
  • A separate minimal ongoing fee for access and archiving costs.

Conversion of e-books from proprietary versions should not be passed on to purchasers (although it is recognized that the added features for manipulation of text and the maintenance/archiving carry some costs and value). Once standards are in place, conversion costs should be minimal.

The demand for simultaneous access to individual e-book titles should not require libraries to purchase multiple copies of e-books, and pricing models should be developed that permit some level of simultaneous access. The Task Force suggested one possible pricing model with access fees to allow simultaneous access of a single title, through floating "tokens", very similar to the pooled ports for other databases. The number of tokens would be negotiated to represent, for example, at least one single use for every title purchased in a particular database or system. Such tokens would allow a specified number of users for a particular set of e-books, regardless of which titles are being accessed simultaneously, but all simultaneous uses would not exceed the total number of tokens allowed for that database or system.

8. Enhancements and Ideal Features

What will really make e-books viable for academic use is added functionality over print versions. This functionality may be as varied as inclusion of multi-media information, full text searching, mark-up, citation formatting, reference linking, convenience, portability, interoperability on a variety of devices, availability in advance of print, advantageous pricing, and the ability to share or loan information. Given the variety of user needs, non-proprietary interoperability of e-book content will be needed.

Academic Institutions' Experiences with E-books

To gain perspective, the Task Force investigated academic institutions' experiences with e-books and their thoughts about the future of e-books. In February 2001, the Task Force sent a short survey to 15 large academic libraries known to be providing access to e-books, and 4 UC campuses with e-book projects; there were 14 respondents. The experiences and concerns related by the respondents confirmed those of the Task Force. Most institutions are still in the trial stage with e-books, with only one to two years experience with e-books, and the institutions are still tentative about development of future collections.

  • Respondents had purchased a range of 500 to 100,000 e-book titles (one included Early English Book Online), with most selecting under 20,000 titles, and eight under 5,000 titles. Collections represent a variety of subject areas, most commonly in computer, business, and reference titles. The top vendors were NetLibrary and ITKnowledge. Respondents were split between annual and perpetual access licenses, and purchased titles both through a consortium and on their own.
  • All institutions stated that acquisition of e-books has had little or no impact on their purchase of titles in print. Some commented that they felt the role of e-books was not to replace print but to serve as a duplicate copy. One commented that e-books are not the panacea for book storage or archiving.
  • Most institutions obtained the MARC records directly from the vendor or through OCLC and added links for electronic versions. None of the institutions queried cataloged free e-books resources, although many provide links to them from their library's web page. Some institutions emphasized how critical cataloging is for users' access, given the small number of titles relative to most libraries' overall holdings.
  • The most common method of publicity used by responding institutions was a link or announcement on the library's web site. Other ways included writing articles for faculty or campus newsletters; creating flyers; sending targeted emails; and including e-books in bibliographic instruction. Libraries commented that promotion and education of users is still a factor in evaluating use.
  • Most institutions had no formal user feedback mechanisms. Many noted that it was too early in the process to gather patrons' impressions. Those who did gather feedback used surveys to do so. Some had anecdotal evidence that users liked having online access, especially the 24x7 aspect. One institution conducted a survey of patrons checking out reading devices and found that 81% said they would use the reader again and 78% said they had no difficulties operating the readers.
  • There was an even split among respondents as to whether or not their normal acquisitions and processing operations had changed to accommodate the purchase of e-books.
  • None of the respondents had been working with Questia or Ebrary. Several expressed concern about their business models, noting that they were taking a "wait and see" position.
  • Most libraries had not purchased portable reading devices; of those, two institutions were considering it for the future. The two institutions offering portable reading devices reported that doing so has been a positive experience.
  • Most respondents did not express concern about interlibrary loan, though several noted that it was too early to tell. Only one institution indicated that they attempted to address interlibrary loan in licensing.

Although institutions recognize that there are substantial issues to consider and resolve, they have not yet tackled these issues. Institutions offered a long list of responses about their next steps with e-books, and the future of e-books in their organizations, that indicate that there is still considerable analysis and evaluation needing to be done to fit e-books into future academic library needs and goals. Issue areas identified include:

  • What kinds of books and content are most useful in electronic format? What will content look like? Will there be a disaggregation of the printed book package into more marketable saleable parts, such as chapters?
  • What collection strategies will be most useful: creating a "critical mass" of titles in a given subject area, or acquiring titles regardless of subject on an as-needed basis?
  • What value-added features will increase the role of e-books in research?
  • How are e-books being used in the academic environment? Not enough is known about how e-books are actually being used, and what potential scholarly and instructional uses may be developed.
  • What changes need to be made to local library procedures and policies for acquiring e-books?
  • How will e-books be preserved or archived?


The role of e-books in academic libraries is still not clear, and there is considerable development of standards, technologies and pricing models needed to make the market for e-books viable and sustainable. Technologies for reading and using e-books are not yet convenient enough for the longer text format to have made much market penetration. It is not clear that academic libraries can replace print with e-books as a long-term collection goal. There are still concerns about adequate rights to information to support the academic mission of open scholarly communication. As one respondent to our survey stated:

"Print has many rights and powers that e-books don't. We like e-books but we must not allow ourselves to be locked into technology or legal/social paradigms that impair our ability to support open research, teaching, and public discourse of our community. We will favor vendors who support open process of scholarship and long-term preservation so we will not rush into e-books."[3]

The CDL Task Force will continue to monitor evolving markets, standards, and technologies, and to evaluate academic use and needs.


Other members of the CDL Ebook Task Force are Karen Coyle, Digital Library Specialist, California Digital Library; Mary Engle, Shared Content Specialist, California Digital Library; Anna Gold, Head, Science and Engineering Library, University of California, San Diego; Rosalie Lack, California Digital Library; and Milton Ternberg, Head Librarian, Thomas J. Long Business & Economics Library, University of California, Berkeley.


1. California Digital Library. Joint Steering Committee for Shared Collections. Ebook Task Force. Report. March 15, 2001. Available at <>.

2. Open ebook ForumTM. Open ebook Publication Structure 1.0.1. Available at <>.

3. California Digital Library. Joint Steering Committee for Shared Collections. Ebook Task Force. Report. Appendix E: Ebooks Institution Survey Summary. March 15, 2001, p. 46. Available at <>.

Selected References

Carty, Susan Kinnell, "The Digital Textbook is Coming--!," Information Searcher, 12 (2000): 3-7.

Crawford, Walter, "Nine Models, One Name: Untangling the E-book Muddle," American Libraries, 31 (Sept. 2000): 56-59.

Dillon, Dennis, "Digital Books: Making Them Work for Publishers and Libraries," College & Research Libraries News, 61 (May 2000): 391-3.

Dillon, Dennis, "E-books: The UT-Austin Experience," Texas Library Journal, 76 (Fall 2000): 112-115.

Ditlea, Steve, "The Real E-Books," Technology Review, July/August 2000. Accessed on the web at <>. Accessed August 25, 2000.

Gibbons, Susan, "E-books: Some Concerns and Surprises," portal: Libraries and the Academy, 1 (2001): 71-75.

Gibbs, Nancy J., "E-Books: Report on An Ongoing Experiment," Against the Grain, (Dec 1999-Jan 2000).

Hawkins, Donald T., "Electronic Books: A Major Publishing Revolution: Part 1: General Considerations and Issues," Online, 24 (July/August 2000):14-28.

Hawkins, Donald T., "Electronic Books: A Major Publishing Revolution: Part 2: The Marketplace," Online, 24 (Sept./October 2000): 18-36.

Helfer, Doris Small, "E-Books in Libraries: Some Early Experiences and Reactions," Searcher, 8 (October 2000): 63-5.

Lynch, Clifford, "Electrifying the Book," Library Journal, 124 (October 15, 1999 supp.): 3-6.

Mooney, Stephen, "Interoperability: Digital Rights Management and the Emerging Ebook Environment," D-Lib Magazine, 7(January 2001). Available at <>. Accessed January 16, 2001.

Neylon, Eamonn, "First Steps in an Information Commerce Economy: Digital Rights Management in the Emerging Ebook Environment," D-Lib Magazine, 7 (January 2001) Available at <>. Accessed January 16, 2001.

Ohler, Jason, "Taming the Technological Beast: The Cast of the E-Book," Futurist, 35 (January 2001): 16.

O'Leary, Mick, "Ebook Scenarios," Online, 25 (Jan/Feb 2001): 62-64.

Pace, Andrew K., "From Atoms to Bits: The E-volution of the Book," Computers in Libraries, 20 (June 2000): 64-6.

Quint, Barbara, "Emerging Opportunities from the Evolving Book," Information Today, 17 (July/Aug 2000): 7-10.

Terry, Ana Arias, "Demystifying the e-Book -- What is it, where will it lead us, and who's in the game?" Against the Grain, 11 (November 1999): 18-21 Available at <> Accessed August 25, 2000.

Wilkinson, Sophie, "E-Books Emerge," Chemical & Engineering News, 78 (August 21, 2000): 49-54.

Suggested Further Reading

Lynch, Clifford, "The Battle to Define the Future of the Book in the Digital World," First Monday, 6 (June 2001). Available at <>. Accessed June 12, 2001.

Copyright 2001 Lucia Snowhill

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DOI: 10.1045/july2001-snowhill