Regular readers of this blog may remember previous posts on my Digitally Ready funded project that looked into the use of e-books by Pharmacy students. This project has now been completed. Faiza AbRahman, a PhD student from the Education department who I was able to appoint thanks to the project funding, and I conducted a survey, analysed usage statistics of the e-books collection and organised a focus group. The findings will be used to inform the promotion of e-books to students, the content of information skills sessions that Library staff deliver, and the management of the Library collections. Our project uncovered a number of core issues that have a bearing on each of these aspects.
First of all, our study highlighted the importance of education in the use of e-books. Rather than focusing solely on practical skills, a holistic approach should be taken. A large proportion of students do not know where or how to find e-books, and even those who use e-books regularly make little use of the advanced features that the digital medium offers, such as downloading chapters, personalising e-books with notes or bookmarking pages. By addressing e-books in training sessions, Liaison Librarians can help students gain an understanding of the different opportunities that the digital format of e-books offers when compared to print.
Furthermore, a lack of understanding of e-book publications and copyright law fosters misconceptions amongst students about the Library’s role in the provision of e-books. Many students believe all titles are available as e-books, and a number are under the impression that the Library can create e-versions of any books they hold and add them to the catalogue. Unfortunately, this could not be further from the truth: academic publishers typically only make a minority of their titles available as e-books, often out of a concern for the profit they make by selling print copies of key texts, and the Library is not licensed to scan more than a chapter from any book we hold. Thus, librarians should teach students not only the practical skills of how to find, access and navigate e-books, but also place them in the wider context of academic publishing and copyright restrictions.
The study also showed that the format students prefer depends on the type of reading they do. For core texts, students overwhelmingly prefer print, whereas the majority of students indicated that they prefer e-books for background reading. Nevertheless, a comparison of usage statistics for e-books with statistics for our print collection showed that the titles which were accessed most frequently were all core texts that were also the print items most often borrowed. This insight will help the Library in choosing which format to purchase for the collection.
Finally, students indicated that they would make more use of e-books if there was an indication of which titles were available as e-books on their reading lists (47% of students), and if there were direct links from Blackboard (76% of students). Unfortunately, the latter in particular would be difficult to maintain, and add to the administrative burden on teaching and support staff. Furthermore, serious consideration must be given to the danger of spoon-feeding our students. In our so-called Information Age, in which we are witnessing the proliferation of digital information, the importance for students to enhance their research skills and develop a critical approach to information can hardly be over estimated. The ability to use search aids such as the Library catalogue and e-book platforms to find a book in the desired format is part of the information literacy skills that we want students to develop early on in their time at Reading.
Thus, my project has shown that it is important that we continue to invest in e-books, not just for core texts but also for background reading. This investment needs to be accompanied by an informed strategy for the promotion of e-books and training in their use. We should not rely on the assumption that undergraduate students possess the digital literacies they need to find, access and use electronic texts, as it was shown that these skills vary greatly amongst students. It is hoped that raising awareness of our e-book collections and training students in how to make effective use of them will result in more students being able to access them when and where they need them and exploit the additional functionality that they offer, increase student satisfaction with Library resources, and support students in developing their information skills.
Liaison Librarian for Pharmacy, Mathematics and Statistics
University of Reading Library