by Abby DeVeuve, Connections Intern
The university library is often seen as the hub of a campus, where students of all majors can mingle to study, research, and work. The needs of these students, across their various backgrounds, are constantly growing and changing. How does a library meet these needs and fit in to the ever-changing technological world of the 21st century? When imagining a library, most people picture stacks upon stacks of volumes in the traditional print format. However, libraries these days consist of much more than meets the eye. Good university libraries must use this technology to their best advantage to give their patrons access to all the information and research materials 21st-century students require to succeed. Luckily for our students, the RWU library recognized these needs and first began to incorporate e-books into their offerings in 2004. A decade later, students are increasingly relying on online material, so to keep up with demand the library’s collection of e-books has grown enormously since 2004.
I spoke with Christine Fagan, the Collections Management Librarian, about how the library has negotiated the transition to e-books and the process behind the many decisions involved in offering e-books. According to Fagan, the advantages of offering e-books are countless. With e-books, students are able to do research off-campus without needing to step foot inside the library, which is especially beneficial for commuters and off-campus students. To do so, the student only needs to enter their name and their library barcode (the 14-digit number found on the back of their student ID card), when prompted, to gain access to all of the library’s online material. An e-book can be viewed online or downloaded, just like checking out a regular book.
One major advantage of e-books: students can search inside the book for keywords or phrases which brings them directly to the information they need. E-books are especially helpful for use with reference books because of the ease of use with shorter entries and the keyword search function. Fagan says that reference materials “are an area prime for electronic conversion” because reference materials need to be updated constantly, which can be more easily done in an electronic format. For example, students can do a search in the Credo Reference Database, which merges a number of reference sources in one place. This is equivalent to being able to have a stack of reference books spread out around you, taking up an entire table in the library, but right on your computer screen. Credo also provides an amazing research tool called the “Mind Map,” which allows a student to type in a word and see a web of interrelated words. The Mind Map is useful for giving students keywords to continue their research if they do not know where to go. For these reasons, the library has invested heavily in electronic reference materials under the direction of Christine Fagan and Susan McMullen, the primary agent for reference materials. Another advantage of e-books is that they are available 24/7, so students do not need to rely on the library’s hours of operation to access them. E-books also provide students with the citation for the book, which students can email to themselves to access the book online later. E-books also provide additional materials not included in printed versions of books. For example, the Oxford Handbook provides a collection of essays, but the electronic version includes additional articles not bound in the print book. The e-book is the only way to purchase these bonus materials.
One of the most exciting advantages of e-books is their ability to allow access to resources students never would have been able to access before. The library has gained access for RWU students to collections of primary source material, such as Early English Books Online (EEBO). Fagan explains, “This collection contains digital facsimile page images of every printed work In England, Ireland, Scotland, Wales, and British North America from 1473-1700.” Without e-Books, students would have to travel to England, Ireland, or wherever these old texts are stored, to gain access to these fragile volumes–obviously impractical. With EEBO, students can access a level of primary research materials that would really be otherwise unavailable. As well as EEBO, the library has 18th and 19th century electronic collections of primary material such as books, essays, and pamphlets. Fagan explains how instead of relying on secondary sources, going back to the primary materials has been encouraged in history and other fields, so students can read the original documents and come to their own conclusions. Before there were e-book collections such as these, students could not do primary research on this level.
Another great thing about e-books is that there are millions of them, but this also poses a problem for librarians who want to offer only the books they think RWU students would find useful. With limited funds, the library cannot just purchase every e-book out there and doing so would lead to information overload. Students would have to sift through useless titles to find what they need. The librarians hold collection management meetings to discuss what they should purchase, but Christine Fagan is the primary agent in charge of decisions regarding e-books. Most e-books are purchased either as individual titles or they are purchased as collections from publishers or agencies such as Project Muse or JSTOR. According to Fagan, “Project Muse is a leading provider of digital humanities and social science content for the academic community, so I can rest assured that the collections that they have will be of high quality.” She continues on to say that the reputations of the publishers and the agencies weigh heavily on the librarians’ decisions because they only want to purchase reliable, quality material. Project Muse and JSTOR are academically-focused collections that have partnered with academic libraries, so they are the two major agencies used by the RWU library. Fagan explained how the e-book collections can be accessed through a subscription or through what is known as “perpetual access” e-book purchasing. Perpetual access means that the library retains access to the book just as if they purchased a physical book; they will always have it. Subscriptions are not as stable as perpetual access, but they do provide additional books that may not be available for perpetual access. Ebrary is the main subscription collection used by the library, which offers over 125,000 online books. Fagan and the other librarians must weigh the pros and cons of subscriptions versus perpetual access and to which books they want to gain access. If a book is central to a collection they might purchase that book in print form, especially if it is part of a subscription service rather than perpetual access.
Challenges of E-Books
Of course, embracing new technologies comes with its challenges. Decisions about e-books have only gotten more complex as more and more resources are made available online by an increasing number of agencies. Fagan explains, “Reading a text cover to cover with an e-book can be challenging,” which is why the library selects resources that are more compatible with the electronic format when deciding what to offer online and what to offer in print. Fagan has heard mixed reviews from students about e-books since it is harder to absorb material read on a screen versus in print. While they are growing in popularity, students still generally seem to prefer print books for certain tasks, such as research. Because every book cannot be duplicated in print and in e-book format, the library must make careful decisions about which books to offer in print and which to offer electronically. Fagan explains that their strategy is to focus on the “core materials that we really need to have in print, and then let the electronic collection blossom.”
Another issue comes from the fact that different providers of e-books have different platforms, different licensing, differences in how much you can download, and various other inconsistencies because e-Books are not standardized. Fagan says that library professionals call e-Books the “Wild West” because there is still so much unknown territory and you never know exactly what you will get between different providers. Some agencies require students to log in, some do not; some allow students to check out a book indefinitely while others impose a time limit just like a regular library book. Some make the books available chapter by chapter while others offer the entire book for download. Generally, most e-books purchased by the RWU library offer unlimited user access, which means that more than one student can access an e-book at a time. Multiple user access is an advantage of e-books over print books, but the library must be sure to avoid e-books providing access to one user, only. There are also your run-of-the-mill technological problems such as when an e-book will not download; but this is a rare problem since the library only purchases from reliable sources. Fagan is hopeful that ultimately the process will become standardized to make a more user-friendly experience across all platforms.
E-Books can be accessed through the University Library website in a multitude of ways. Once you are on the library website, the easiest way to access materials regarding a topic is to select “OneSearch” from the main search bar at the top of the page. After typing in a keyword, a student can limit the search to e-books by changing the “format” tab on the left side of the page. Another way to access e-books is by clicking on the “Books & E-books” option, which then produces a list of databases and collections of e-books available to students. This page also has a link to the e-book libguide, which provides help with viewing or downloading e-books. Alternatively, e-books can be accessed through specific databases through the alphabetical “Databases @ RWU” tab. For example, clicking on the “J” would bring up a list of all databases beginning with J, including JSTOR. Students can then click on the database they want to search.
This is where books are going, says Fagan. However, there is still value in keeping print books. Each format has pros and cons, which is why the decision making process is so complex. The 21st century university library faces unique challenges as it remains abreast of all the ways to give students access to the information and resources they need to succeed in school.