Historian Martyn Lyons wrote that “the computer revolution has proved far more profound than Gutenberg’s invention, in that it completely changed the material form of the codex which had been dominant for at least 1500 years.” Indeed, the e-book has shaken up the world of publishers, librarians, and readers alike—all in under a decade.

E-books have existed since the 1970s, when Project Gutenberg began digitizing titles that had entered the public domain. But with a lack of devices on which to read them, they wouldn’t enter the public consciousness for several more decades.

On November 19, 2007, Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos launched the Kindle eBook Reader, priced at $399. Over the next eight months, Amazon sold some 240,000 of them. When the Kindle was first launched, Amazon touted the availability of 90,000 e-books. Christmas Day of 2009 marked the first day in which Amazon received more e-book purchases than print book purchases.

By 2010, e-book purchases outnumbered hardcover purchases; by the next year, the same would be true of paperbacks. Interestingly, though, print book sales bounced back in 2014, with both hardcover and paperback purchases overtaking e-book purchases. E-books have yet to retake their place at the top, suggesting the presence of a “digital fatigue” among readers.

It’s unknown precisely how many e-books Amazon offers today, but a reasonable estimate would be 3.8 million. It’s been predicted that 75 percent of books will be available in electronic form by the year 2020.

(Pew Research Center)

A 2014 survey by the Pew Research Center estimated that half of U.S. adults own either a tablet or an e-reader. Some researchers have noted, however, that these devices are more popular with the parents of college students than with the college students themselves, with the overwhelming majority of students preferring to read in print.

How do libraries acquire e-books?


Before e-books came onto the scene, there were three methods that librarians could use to select books for purchase. First, they could set up an approval plan, which means that newly published books are automatically selected for the library based on its pre-established “profile.” Second, they could manually select new books to purchase based on catalogs, reviews, etc. Third, they could simply make purchases based off of the individual title recommendations from faculty and patrons.

If you’re skeptical about how efficient any of those three options would be for selecting titles, your skepticism is warranted. A study by librarians at Lingnan University in Hong Kong showed that 36% of the library’s collection had not circulated over a 15-year period. Even more dramatically, a librarian at Wake Forest University found that half of the library’s books had never once circulated. And of the half that did circulate, over a third circulated only once.

With the rise of e-books, however, there also arose alternate methods for libraries to add to their collection. This is how researchers at Purdue University explain the way in which libraries acquire e-books:

Whether a library buys from a publisher, aggregator, or vendor, it has options such as selecting title-by-title, setting up approval plans (automatic purchasing of whole subject categories), setting up delayed payment plans (patron-driven [PDA] or demand-driven acquisitions [DDA]), or buying bundles. A bundle, or package, of titles usually contains a substantial portion of the publisher’s titles at an extremely advantageous price per title.

In patron-demand e-book programs— DDA or PDA— librarians load catalog records for books in profiled subjects and delay buying them until patrons make sufficient use of specific titles to warrant a purchase. In these programs, books are “rented” until a predetermined number of uses triggers a purchase. … However, the major finding of this early study of PDA was that the user-selected titles were used twice as often as librarian-selected titles (on average 8.6 times per year vs. 4.3 times per year).

In recent years, DDA has been the “preferred mode of acquisition” for academic libraries. Studies have consistently shown that books bought in bundles, while having a lower cost per use, are also used significantly less than those directly selected by librarians or patrons.

Public libraries have adopted e-books just as rapidly as academic libraries. One key difference between the two types of libraries is that one vendor has a stranglehold on the public library market. OverDrive claims to be the sole supplier of e-books for over 90% of the public libraries in North America. The company boasts of its catalog with more than 3.3 million titles from over 5,000 publishers. Libraries and library consortia are able to select which titles to purchase and make available through their catalogs, as well as determine the terms of use for each title. For example, a book purchased under the “Simultaneous Use” model can be utilized by multiple people at the same time, while a book purchased under the (more popular) “One Copy / One Use” model is only able to be checked out by one user at a time.

Am Lib Ass
(American Library Association)

Who uses the e-books once they’ve been purchased?

The inventory of the average academic library is roughly half print and half electronic . While this is quite a remarkable switch to have made in little over a decade, it is worth noting that e-books are met with much more reluctance than e-journals.

Once they’ve been purchased, how frequently are these books used again? A librarian at the Graduate School of Education in New York City found that over half of e-books received fewer than ten uses over a twenty-month period.


A study at the University of Denver found that over half of e-book users read only one chapter from the book, while fewer than one in ten read the entire book. Another more expansive study came to a similar conclusion, finding that 80% of e-book reading sessions involved fewer than 30 pages. People tend to prefer print when extended reading is required. A study of Coastal Carolina University’s library found that e-books were used two-and-a-half times as frequently as print books, but found that patrons preferred print for “substantive use” of the book.

E-book users point to a number of benefits. The single most important one they cite is their accessibility. That is, users can access numerous different e-books from anywhere that has Internet access. It would be physically impossible to keep even a fraction of those books constantly available in print form. As noted by Coonin et al.: “shifting to electronic resources allows all students access, regardless of geographic location. For distance students specifically, e-resources facilitate instant access.” E-books can also be useful for those with physical disabilities that find accessing the library to be a challenge, as well as for those with visual disabilities that hinder their ability to read the small text in a print book.

Depending on the terms of the library’s subscription, multiple e-book users are often able to use the same title simultaneously—a possibility which does not extend to print books, of course. E-book users also appreciate the ability to search the full-text of any given e-book. While indexes are certainly useful, they are not always exhaustive, and sometimes full-text searches are the only way to pinpoint exactly what you’re looking for.

E-book usage is highest among postdoctoral students, followed by graduate students, then faculty, while undergraduates are the least frequent e-book users. Interestingly, more frequent usage does not necessarily translate to more proficiency; graduate students and faculty have demonstrated a similar lack of understanding when it comes to basic features of the e-book, such as highlighting, note-taking, and downloading. This seems to be due in large part to the e-book platforms themselves. There are several different e-book platforms in regular use by academic libraries, and no two of them are even remotely alike. This makes the learning curve difficult even for “digital natives.” As researchers in the UK put it, e-book readers often encounter “problems with access, insufficient context in search results, awkward navigation tools, an unpleasant reading experience and interfaces that are not intuitive to use.”

A study from researchers at Kent State University provides some insight into who adopts the electronic format of reading. They found that college graduates are significantly more likely to use e-books than those who had only graduated high school. Similarly, higher income was associated with a stronger usage of e-books relative to print. They also saw evidence to suggest that e-book usage has been slower to reach rural areas as opposed to suburban areas.  Perhaps the most interesting finding of their study was that Hispanics were significantly more likely to read e-books than were non-Hispanics.

The preference for print versus electronic books also varies across different fields of study. Scholars of social sciences and the humanities largely prefer print books, while scientists seem to have more of an affinity for their electronic counterparts. It is thus unsurprising that librarians often opt to acquire primarily e-books relevant to the STEM disciplines (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) and mostly print books relevant to the social sciences and the humanities.

McKiel found that students at Western Oregon University used an average of 8.79 print books from the library each year. These same students used a mere 1.39 e-books on average.

Using a different methodology, Knowlton at the University of Memphis also found a marked preference for print. He found that 16.1 percent of the library’s print materials were used in the 2013–2014 academic year, compared to only 10.4 percent of the library’s e-books. Similarly, Fry found that 27% of the print books at Bowling Green State University circulated at least once in a sixteen-month period, while only 12% of e-books  had at least one circulation in the same time span.

What’s slowing down the adoption of e-books?

HL Chronicle.jpg
(HL Chronicle of Data Protection)

As Sue Polanka puts it:

People like print books. They like the way they smell and feel, how they give libraries a sense of gravitas, and how they present a physical embodiment of scholarship and creativity. People rally around print books; it is difficult to imagine e-books inspiring the same level of loyalty

Although a 2009 survey found that the majority of respondents prefer e-books in PDF format, virtually no books are actually offered in this format. The most significant factor that the study found to hinder  the usage of e-books, however, was the presence of digital rights management or DRM. DRM is what’s known as an “access control technology,” which simply means that it exists to “restrict certain uses of e-books,” such as by “prohibiting copying, transferring to other devices, or limiting use to a limited period of time.” DRM came about as a way to mollify the concerns of publishers that e-books would soon become a free-for-all via file-sharing networks (as occurred in the music industry with Napster), which would cut substantially into their profits.

It has been noted that these restrictions are often cumbersome and frustrating for readers. One faculty member at the University of Illinois laments that “ebooks can, and should, be far, far more useful than print books, but industry ideas about ‘necessary DRM’ are far out of whack with end users expectations.” Researchers at Cornell University note that “DRM systems give copyright holders the technological ability to limit fair use rights further than allowed under Copyright Law—skewing the laws in their favor.” They go on to point to the loss of privacy that comes with DRM systems, which collect and store user data. “Types of information being collected include location data, system configurations, timestamps of when content is accessed, and sometimes even more personal types of data such as contact lists.”

Moreover, one study showed that students take longer to read e-books than print books, mostly because of a greater temptation to multitask and engage in other activities while reading. Another demonstrated that students found information more quickly with a the traditional back-of-the-book index than they found it with the full-text search or the table of contents in an e-book.

Researchers found that students at the University of Western Ontario had more difficulty navigating and finding information in e-books than those who sought the same information in a print version of the book. They suggest that this was due in part to the fact that e-books don’t have the same sense of linearity as their print counterparts. Moreover, a number of articles have discussed the issues with the unintuitive and difficult-to-navigate e-book platforms, signaling their lack of usability as yet another factor in readers’ reluctance to ditch paper books altogether.

That preference for print might not be shared among children belonging to “Generation Z,” however. One study of thousands of children in the UK (aged 8 to 16) found that more than half preferred reading on a screen to reading in print.

E-books seem to have the strongest appeal to non-readers. In a study on 10th-graders in Norway, researchers found that “many of those who were most in favor of [e-books] were among those who claimed that they did not like reading at all.” They go on to suggest that using e-books “as an alternative to print books could hence be a way to promote reading to non-readers.” The authors of a study on middle school students in Texas were able to come to the same conclusion, while middle school teachers in New Zealand reported a “higher engagement in literacy learning when digital technologies were embedded.” This tendency appears to transcend Western culture; these same findings were replicated in a study of elementary school students in Oman.

Speaking of Oman…

What’s the situation like outside the United States?

In short, almost exactly the same.

Writing of undergraduates students in Malaysia, Letchumanan and Tarmizi state that students “show resistance” to using e-books because they find that “the service is unreliable, [there is a] lack of manipulability of online features, flaws in the physical design of e-book and insufficient e-book collection of their field.” Researchers in Taiwan found that graduate students tended to use e-books only if they were unable to obtain a print version of the same title.’ South Korean students have been reluctant to transition to e-books and maintain a strong preference for print.

E-books have begun to take off in Iran, as well as in Saudi Arabia. Predictably, younger Pakistanis (particularly male Pakistanis) are more inclined to use e-books than the older generations.

Chilean college students prefer print for longer reading sessions, but use of smartphones to consult electronic reference books is common. Researchers in Northern Ireland discovered that almost half of new faculty members (those with less than five years of experience) had no idea that their library even had e-books.

This is just a small sample of the studies that have been done internationally. Readers’ evaluations of e-book technologies are remarkably similar across the board. No matter where they’re from, most people are glad that e-books exist, yet frustrated when navigating their platforms and reluctant to use them with any sort of enthusiasm.

I’ll conclude this article with a helpful infographic that summarizes the situation of digital and print books.


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