All posts by Steve McIndoe

E-books: a perspective from a PhD student

I have been a student for the last 15 years (gasp!) and I have also had to work and study at the same time to make ends meet financially. I can appreciate how frustrating and socially exclusive it can be when there are books that you really need but you just can’t afford to buy them. Although the books I needed for my PhD were not part of any core reading lists, when I heard about the Books Right Here Right Now project it made me think about how much easier the research process might have been if I had been able to access the texts I needed electronically.

During my studies I submitted a paper to the UK Kant Society conference, based around a chapter of my thesis. Submitting the paper required me to read a new book that cost £65 to buy. This is a fairly standard price for philosophy texts (though during the course of my thesis I referred to over 200 titles, many of which cost a lot more!). As this book was new and focused on a niche area, the Library did not have a copy and it was not available as an e-book at the time. I did manage to order it as an interlibrary loan, making notes and photocopying relevant pages, but this was a slow and time-consuming process and the book had to be returned within a few weeks.


My conference paper and thesis included some criticisms of the book’s findings but it was while preparing my conference paper that I realised that the author of the text was going to be attending. Due to the limited access I’d had to the full book, I suddenly felt very nervous about the content of my paper. Although the paper was well received – and I spoke to the author and we had an interesting discussion about our differing interpretations – the whole experience would have been much less stressful if I’d been able to refer back to the original text in full as and when I needed it.  

The Library offers a ‘Books on Demand’ service to postgraduates, enabling them to order books that are essential for their research either in print or online. The availability of e-books to all members of the academic community, through this and the work of Books Right Here Right Now, will make a real difference to the quality of academic study and research.

Dr Nicola Grayson, University of Manchester Library

US perceptions of the e-text landscape


In American higher education, the textbook remains a foundational source of academic material, but their rising cost has been a hot topic in recent years. Prices have increased 82 percent from 2002 to 2012, now costing students an average of $1200 per year. The amount that students spend on course materials has recently declined, but only because the inflated expense drives students to sometimes avoid purchasing textbooks altogether. Recent governmental steps have been taken to increase the affordability of materials, such as the House of Representatives call for a program to utilize digital textbooks.

Over half of American college students have used an eTextbook in their studies, but only around 3% of textbook sales in the United States are digital. Institutional adoption of eTextbooks is low in the United States, as only 5% are broadly deploying them. Adoption in the United States is typically limited to pilots or individual faculty.

Why do these underwhelming trends exist? First, research on the user experience reveals mixed findings. Students appreciate the cost and portability but often experience issues with usability, device choice, and distractibility. In addition, reading digitally demands a different set of skills than printed texts, such as negotiating the text in a non-linear fashion and skillfully annotating. Instructors are not usually trained to support students in this way, and may assume that students already have these skills. On a technical level, there is no universal access eTextbooks and they come in all varieties: PDF and interactive; free and with cost; tablets and computers; available at the college bookstore and online. This fragmented landscape is often confusing for instructors when selecting resources. For these reasons and others, the preference for print remains in the United States.

Some exceptions are emerging to illuminate the digital landscape in the United States. Indiana University has an eTexts initiative program that partners with many publishers with the objective of driving down material costs, giving faculty access to high quality materials, developing new tools for teaching and learning, and shaping the terms of eTexts models. Boise State University offers an eTextbook Authoring Bootcamp, encouraging instructors to create their own digital books and share them freely with students. At our university, newly formed degree programs such as Integrated Business are interested in forgoing textbooks altogether and instead focusing on dynamic collections of online materials. To accomplish this, instructional designers and librarians are collaborating with instructors to create these repositories of various multimedia resources. The University of Maryland University College plans to eliminate textbooks and instead opt for open educational resources.

Several measures need to be addressed in order for this landscape to broaden in the United States. First, universities often enter legal agreements with external bookstores (such as Barnes and Noble). These contracts are often ironclad, with the bookstore being regarded as the “exclusive seller of digital materials.” These materials are often marked up 30%, higher than new or used print books. It is important that universities have the freedom to pursue and offer any educational materials that will benefit their teachers and learners. In addition, the role of the instructor is crucial. Instructors need training in supporting students to read digitally, and they need to learn how to model best practices as well. Support staff like librarians and instructional designers are helpful in this endeavor. Finally, research on the effectiveness of digital texts must be conducted and shared in order to gain support from university and instructors.

Aimee deNoyelles, Instructional Designer, University of Central Florida

photo credit: textbook-cycle via photopin (license)

Literature review findings: Innovation

The latest in our series of literature review reports has identified a number of innovative ways of purchasing and delivery.

One particular institution is part of a state wide consortium that frequently negotiates prices for the whole state system, while another has developed a purchase predictor system prototype. Other institutions have found Demand or Patron Driven Acquisition a cost-effective way to purchase books at the user’s point of need and libraries must recognize that many library users are better suited to identify the resources that will best meet their needs, often before librarians even know they want it.

Much remains to be seen on how Demand or Patron Driven Acquisition will affect the bottom line for publishers and what impact this might have on the pricing (and bundling) of electronic books.  At the time of writing there are a number of e-book pilots (providing students with core e-books) taking place at other institutions and it would be worth keeping track of any publicised outcomes from these.

Experts and experiments: focusing on the future

Guinea reading

Exploring new purchasing models and methods of book provision inevitably involves experimentation and the unknown. To some extent students become ‘guinea pigs’, though this isn’t necessarily a bad thing.

Potential difficulties—for instance, installing new software, using unfamiliar formats and figuring out the best workflows—are balanced by the user-centric and thought-provoking nature of our experiments.

Our hypothesis is that the models we are exploring will benefit undergraduates and the University in both the short and long term. No instrument, and no piece of research, is ever value-neutral. Built into our project is an unavoidable, subtly political fact: students want to keep their costs down, and so does the University (including the Library). Both parties want to be smart about budgets while keeping up-to-date with useful technologies.

The assumptions made by Books Right Here Right Now are justifiable ones; local expertise is cross-referenced with a range of primary and secondary sources. However, the project must continue to question, reflect, and add to its knowledge store while recognising that even the most tightly controlled experiments leave room for the unexpected.

Exploring students’ reactions and attitudes is essential to evaluating the project’s success. Are their perceptions in harmony with our own? How do they rate our e-books in relation to others? What (if anything) do they believe are the benefits of e-books? Do e-books occupy a ‘comfortable’ space in academic reading routines? What might they tell us that’s surprising, or even counter-intuitive?

Seeking answers to these and other questions, we triangulated data gathered via two generally efficient and well-understood instruments: the (online) questionnaire and the focus group. Links to the questionnaire were distributed to 4480 students across 23 modules; three focus groups separated by Faculty were delivered in a semi-structured format, with time allocated to a demonstration and discussion of the e-books, something executed in collaboration with the Library’s Digital Systems and eLearning teams.

Challenges included gaining a sufficient response to the questionnaire in order to produce valid statistics, finding enough participants for the focus groups at a busy time of year, and putting aside our ‘belief’ in the project to avoid asking ‘leading’ questions. Happily, all difficulties were overcome and much of what the students told us confirmed that we are offering something valuable, relevant and defensible.

Likewise, in terms of research methods, findings from the questionnaire and the focus groups complemented one another. There were a few surprises along the way – for instance, there is a distinct lack of interest in accessing illegal copies of e-books and a general lack of experience using e-book readers for either recreational or scholarly reading. There is also a huge amount of pragmatism and an appreciation by students that what you choose isn’t always dictated by what you prefer but by what is available.

In the near future, we will be sharing and discussing some of our findings while using them to inform future project activities. Watch this space!

Kathleen Menzies, Data and Research Assistant, University of Manchester Library

Literature review findings: Online versus print

As mentioned in the introductory post about our literature reviews, the Books Right Here Right Now project has been looking at various key themes to inform our work. One of the themes explored readers’ preferences for online and printed texts.

The results of this research were mixed with some students preferring print for its ease of use – or their fondness for the physical feel of a book – while others preferred electronic access for the convenience and search functionality that it offers. Studies recognise that new forms of reading behaviour are occurring with electronic content, with the process of reading on screen being cognitively different to the process of reading on paper. Further research on the technological, behavioural, societal and neurological aspects of online reading is required but new forms of non-traditional reading behaviour include concepts such as ‘power-browsing’ through titles and readers following the ‘path-of-least-resistance’ to find the information they are looking for as quickly as possible. It is also acknowledged that the technological infrastructure for online reading is a work in progress. Problems such as eye fatigue from reading on screen are common, possibly putting major academic publishers off investing in e-readers for the time being.

Ebooks 2015: etextbooks, elearning, econtent


The Ebooks 2015 conference was held at University College London (UCL) in May 2015 and featured talks from academic libraries, JISC and publishers, with case studies from both the UK and USA.

A number of speakers addressed the issue of universities and libraries producing their own e-textbooks,some of which came about through JISC-funded projects. Roger Tritton, interim Head of Projects at JISC Collections, outlined the advantages that e-books bring to universities in helping to address the key issues of reusability, accessibility, interoperability and durability.

Sarah Lippincott, Program Manager of the Library Publishing Coalition in the States, has been tracking similar developments in the USA, while Kate Pitcher from the State University of New York at Geneseo presented a case study for Open SUNY Textbooks.

Other interesting examples of e-book developments included the partnership between Proquest and Cengage Australia, in which the initial pilot made seven e-textbooks available and was so successful that Cengage released another 20 titles in 2015, including many first runs.

Andrejs Alferovs, Managing Director of Kortext, presented on “Widening Access to Digital Textbooks”, looking at how teachers and learners are using digital textbooks online or via download. He showed how various tools can enhance the experience of reading to note-taking and how the creative use of content and platforms will evolve to enhance interaction. He also demonstrated the ways in which e-book usage data can help understand learning processes and inform teaching practice.

Slides from all of the presentations are available on the UCL website.

Lisa Wood, University of Manchester Library

photo credit: Main Building via photopin (license)

Literature review findings: Discovery

This blog entry focuses on the findings of our literature review research, as discussed in an earlier post. The results of this research theme revealed some major benefits to students and academics at institutions using reading list systems, not least that the core principles of information literacy (to scope, gather, present and evaluate information) can all be demonstrated within a reading list. At some institutions reading list systems have been connected to a Virtual Learning Environment (VLE) and the VLE has become be the place where students go to get everything they need for their academic study.

This has been well-received by academics who state that such integration increases students’ engagement with their course reading. At the same time, it is also apparent that some reading lists are not realising their full potential, often because they are not being kept up to date by academics who believe the effort involved in maintaining reading lists is disproportionate to the benefits they bring to students.

Our literature reviews for Books Right Here Right Now

As a major part of the Books Right Here Right Now project we have been carrying out a literature review to understand all the issues and inform the primary research we are undertaking with our students and academic colleagues.

3011441301_14e0fbcbf7_bSix main themes were investigated in this literature review:

  • Identification of core texts
  • E-book pilots
  • Reading behaviour
  • Purchasing procedures
  • Reading strategy
  • Technology and facilitation of access

In the first instance keywords to be used for searching were identified for each of these themes, with input from relevant staff on the project group. The agreed keywords were then used to search on a number of pre-determined sources, including databases such as Library and Information Science Abstracts (LISA), ERIC, Emerald and Factiva as well as mailing lists such as LIS-E-BOOKS and LIS-ERESOURCES.

As many of the themes related to current developments in academic libraries, publishing or technology, and the project is focused on the future, the literature review was limited to the retrieval of content from 2009 to the present day.

In total just over 50 items of literature were identified using the methodology outlined above. To present the results of the literature review, findings were grouped into the following themes:

  • Reading behaviour (understanding student preferences for and perceptions of e-books)
  • Reading behaviour (online reading versus print; device choice)
  • Discovery (reading lists; information seeking behaviour)
  • Innovation (new ways of purchasing e-book pilots; new ways of content delivery)
  • The future (predictions; sustainability)

Each of these themes was taken in turn and any items from the literature search that fitted under these themes were identified by reading the title and abstract. For each piece of literature the aim was to extract key findings, key statistics, leading exponents and any implications or recommendations for The University of Manchester Library. Sometimes items of literature made reference to other studies that had taken place. When it was clear that these references fitted well into the themes of the literature review, they were consulted, analysed and also included in findings alongside the other articles.

To finish off, once the key information had been extracted from the literature and matched to an appropriate theme, it was then incorporated into a series of slides on Slideshare to give a visual representation of the findings.

We will share these findings via this blog over the coming months.

photo credit: stats via photopin (license)

‘What the students told us’: a VitalSource/ Plymouth University case study


As the largest UK supplier of e-textbooks, with more than 51,000 users, VitalSource prioritises staying close to students.  In addition to regularly holding student panels, we’ve developed a case study with Plymouth University, reporting reactions to their institution-wide digital textbook programme.  They wanted every student to have access to essential course content, regardless of their financial situation, so they supplied more than 4000 students with digital access to all required titles.


Plymouth achieved exceptionally high levels of awareness and approval for the project.  Their survey showed that 82% of students used their eTextbook online or downloaded it onto at least one device.

Of course, there was a small group of students that hadn’t used their e-textbooks. Reassuringly for institutions rolling out digital content, only one of them said this was because they didn’t want them. The vast majority simply needed more communication. 92% of those agreed that the programme was a good idea. Feedback echoed our student panels, welcoming the convenience and the opportunity to save money:

“… fewer books to pay for. E-books are always there when you need them…”

The student responses also challenged the perception that reading onscreen is problematic.  More than 70% of those using e-textbooks found them easy to read. This may have included students with print-related disabilities, for whom e-textbooks offer a significantly improved and inclusive experience. The ability to search for keywords was seen as an advantage and an encouragement to read around a subject.

A similar number of students stated that the programme had made it easier to carry out their recommended reading:

“it motivated me to do more reading”

E-textbooks freed them from the cost and ‘hassle’ of getting hold of their course books, and the delay of waiting for library copies, meaning they could organise their time better and learn more efficiently.

“I could just go on my phone and find the information that I needed.”

During focus group sessions, several students acknowledged that they had been nervous at the outset of the project and might have preferred print, given the choice.  This was particularly the case for first year students who were overwhelmed by the transition to university. However, once they got started, they found e-textbooks straightforward to use and download.  They loved the fact that they could link to their own copy of the book from the VLE. Practical advantages of digital, such as portability, any-time access and the ability to search, copy and paste outweighed any nostalgia for print.

Students were also appreciative of the ways in which their lecturers were using e-textbooks to add to the learning experience, for example by including references in teaching material or using the ‘Share Notes’ feature, which allows lecturers to add their own notes and highlights to e-textbooks and share them with their students.

Asked whether they would like e-textbooks next year, the focus group responded with a resounding “Yes!”.

To request the full case study contact

Becky Hartnup, Ingram Content

“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)