Monthly Archives: May 2015

“Pick a text, any text”: understanding what students are asked to read


A fundamental part of getting the e-book project here at Manchester off the ground has been establishing effective ways to work with faculties and schools in the efficient identification and mapping of recommended texts. This might sound easy but was actually very complex!

After getting buy-in to the principles of the project as a whole, the Academic Engagement team carried out a consultation process across campus, with discussions focused on the coordinated collation of the key texts being recommended for each module.

Our interest lay not only in finding out how we might improve the ways we get hold of this information but also in the degree of flexibility regarding the texts being recommended. If an e-book version of a key text is not available, would a lecturer consider recommending an alternative? Are issues of access enough of a reason to change a recommendation, or are certain textbooks absolutely fundamental to the teaching of a particular unit?

Initial responses to the principles of the project were very positive:

“It’s a no-brainer. I suggest that if publishers do not agree to negotiate, lecturers would consider changing core texts to put pressure on them.”

“This is clearly a timely and much-needed innovation by the library’”

Our discussions also helped us identify and understand a number of issues or potential barriers we will need to take account of during the project:

Discipline specific issues

  • Some lecturers do not use even one ‘core text’ in their teaching
  • Some lecturers are resistant to working with e-books, often based on their own and their students’ previous experiences – “…they keep crashing, take a long time to load and it’s difficult to concentrate for a long period of time on screen”
  • There are concerns about dictating to students which of the texts on their reading lists should be considered essential (with the implication that others can be ignored)
  • Programmes with smaller cohorts have far fewer problems with the availability of core recommended texts

School specific

  • Some schools have complex internal structures and organisational models, making school-level coordination of processes difficult – “It’s a good idea in theory but difficult in practice for a multidiscipline school to keep up to date”
  • Ideally, schools would identify an individual to take on the responsibility of coordination for the entire school and ensure that all staff were sending in details of their chosen texts, but this is easier said than done


  • There are concerns about time constraints and placing additional administrative burdens on staff
  • Some staff cited the difficulty of choosing one key text from a list of books that were all considered ‘core reading’
  • Submitting changes each year well in advance of the teaching timetable is a problem as decisions on which text will be used are not always made that early (though the implementation of a university policy regarding inclusive teaching will push this issue to the fore over the coming year)

So, what is the upshot of all this work?

We know that we will need to take into account all the different ways that schools and academics work but also that we need to introduce much simpler ways of obtaining this information – and working with it!

Olivia Walsby, Academic Engagement Librarian, University of Manchester Library

photo credit: Science Online Book Display via photopin (license)

Keeping up with the Joneses?


I recently attended Talis Insight 2015 and was particularly interested in a number of presentations from other university libraries discussing their own recent e-text initiatives. A central aim of our Books Right Here Right Now project is to gain a better understanding of how other institutions are tackling e-text provision, finding out about the scope and scale of their projects, the challenges they have faced and their future direction.

It was very interesting to see presentations from the University of East London, Plymouth University, Coventry University and Middlesex University and to realise that despite the similarity of factors driving the projects there are a variety of approaches being taken. Rather than summarising each presentation in detail, I have drawn the strands together into a few key observations:

  • Many of these initiatives have been university-led rather than library-led. The pilots at Coventry mostly closely reflect what we have been doing at Manchester but were a response to a wider university initiative to provide students with free texts. At Manchester, the Library is leading the project and we believe we are best placed in this case to influence its direction and negotiate better e-book deals.
  • Kortext has been the preferred supplier and negotiations with publishers tend to be via a third party such as Kortext or John Smith’s. At Manchester, we have been trialling VitalSource but we are very interested to learn about the reasons for the decisions other institutions have taken.
  • The biggest challenge for all institutions has been to work out which modules are running, who the module co-ordinators are, how many students are expected to take the module and which core text is required. As one presenter noted, “It shouldn’t be that hard!” but for various reasons getting hold of this information is less easy than expected.
  • Timely communication and ongoing technical support and advocacy are essential to ensure academic staff and students know when and where their e-texts are available, how to access them and how to download the texts to get the best functionality.
  • Further research is needed to really understand students’ (and academics’) reading behaviour and preferences.

So what did I learn? Firstly, it is not a case of “keeping up with the Joneses”. What we are doing at Manchester – although very much in line with other initiatives – is different in terms of looking beyond the provision of free textbooks to changing the model by which core texts are purchased and provided. Secondly, it is good to know that we were aware of the other initiatives and weren’t missing anything in terms of our project benchmarking. Finally, it is very reassuring to know that all institutions are facing the same challenges and are open to discussing and sharing experiences to find solutions.

Janette Watson, University of Manchester Library

photo credit: N15 Stone clad pair June 2009 via photopin (license)

NAG 5th Collection Development Seminar for Academic Libraries: Collaboration and Innovation

As a regular attendee at this National Acquisitions Group (NAG) conference, I was delighted to see that e-textbooks featured on this year’s programme. A library perspective was supplied by the University of East London (UEL) and a supplier perspective by Vitalsource.

Libby Homer from UEL outlined the evolution of their textbook offer to students. Having initially implemented a print-based solution to provide free copies of the key textbook for each module to their students, by 2014 they were providing all their new undergraduates with a tablet on which these key texts were freely accessible via the Kortext app or online (second and third years still received hard copies).  Library staff offered support to students, both in using the devices and accessing content.


UEL are now investigating the pedagogical aspects of e-textbook provision and gathering more student feedback. Initial feedback on reading preferences appears to echo that featured in a previous post, with students generally preferring print: interestingly the percentage of students preferring print to electronic was significantly lower among the first year cohort (who were provided with free e-books) than it was for second and third years.

Jeni Evans of Vitalsource outlined the supplier perspective, providing impressive statistics on the number of e-textbooks delivered in the UK in 2014. This was followed by a discussion of business models, analytics and e-book formats.

At the University of Manchester, we have negotiated with publishers directly and used Vitalsource as the delivery platform but alternative models are available. For example, Vitalsource can  buy content from the publishers and sell it back to the library.

Jeni presented Vitalsource analytics that supported our own experience in the pilots we have been running: users overwhelmingly accessed content online rather than downloading it to a device, access via Android devices is relatively small and less than 1% of the pages accessed are then printed out.

The remainder of Jeni’s presentation outlined how the electronic versus print debate is set to be radically altered by developments in e-book technology. Making more content available via EPUB 3.0, for example, would improve the experience for readers using mobile devices and the enhanced interactivity could alter students’ views on the limitations of e-books for study.

Other highly informative presentations included the use of reading list systems at King’s College London and Edinburgh and the approach to collection development at Leeds University Library following their restructure. Conferences such as this are a great opportunity to discuss progress with colleagues at other institutions facing the same challenges and engaging in similar initiatives.

Des Coyle, University of Manchester Library