Lunch & Learn: E-books: Princeton and Beyond Adriana Popescu and Priscilla Treadwell

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When e-books began to appear in the early 2000’s, there was speculation about the demise of the printed book. While that clearly did not come to pass, e-books have now become a staple of the reference holdings of many libraries. The library and consumer markets have matured, and despite all predictions and speculations, print books and e-books have continued to co-exist quite nicely at the Princeton University Library.
At the December 3, 2008 Lunch ‘n Learn Adriana Popescu, Princeton’s Engineering Librarian and Plasma Physics Librarian, and Priscilla Treadwell, Electronic Publications Marketing Manager at the Princeton University Press, presented both the library and publisher perspectives: Princeton University Library’s selection process for e-books, and the usage patterns at the University that reveal what readers in an academic environment like and don’t like about e-books; and Princeton University Press’s rationale for making certain content available to both the library and consumer markets.


The idea of an electronic book, or e-book, is still fairly new. In the library world, e-books are defined as the digital media equivalent of a printed book, as well as books that were born digital, with no previous print versions. The content of e-books is delivered online through an intermediary, such as a computer or a dedicated reading or mobile device.
Scholars in Library and Information Science trace the beginnings of the e-book back to 1945, when Vanevar Bush described the “memex’ in an Atlantic Monthly article. Andries van Damm coined the phrase “electronic book” in 1967. Alan Kay gets the credit for trying to turn the idea of an electronic book, into a product. In 1968, he proposed the Dynabook, essentially a notebook with a million pixel screen, eight processors and both wireless and cable networking.
In 1971, Michael Hart began the oldest digital library, Project Gutenberg, at the University of Illinois. The project aimed initially to create an ASCII based electronic public library of 10,000 books. Project Gutenberg now contains 25,000 books and continues to record tens of thousands of downloads every day.
Some publishers and vendors began experimenting seriously with e-books during the late 1990s. At that time, it was a laborious and expensive endeavor. Those brave enough to enter the market, notably NetLibrary, ebrary and Questia, had lukewarm responses from the library community. When the internet bubble burst in 2001, libraries took a cautious attitude towards investing large amounts of their budgets in e-books.
Publishers began to establish their own e-book publishing platforms in 2004, enabling them to host and sell e-books directly to libraries. New pricing and licensing models were welcomed by librarians.
At Princeton, all e-books at PUL are accessible and delivered to users online through a web browser. The library does not yet own or license e-books through a hand-held device, such as Kindle or Sony Reader. The library began to acquire e-books in 2001. Today, the PUL Main Catalog contains more than 570,000 records for electronic titles (excluding journals and serials), covering all subject areas. The library’s e-book collection is a mix of subscribed content, and owned content.
The subscriptions are mostly for specialized collections such as Knovel engineering reference, or multi-disciplinary collections with a large content of textbook materials, such as ebrary. Outright purchases of e-books tend to be focused on reference works and university press collections.
The library’s selection process for e-books is governed by the same principle that governs all areas of collection development at PUL: we collect materials of all types and formats which support the university’s research and educational mission.
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The library monitors very closely the usage of e-books, especially for subscription based services, when costs increase annually and content may not always meet the requirements and standards of collecting set by the library. In general, the reports for our community show a usage pattern for fact checking and general reference transactions. A typical user session when consulting an e-book is short, less than 10 minutes and as the report for usage of ebrary e-books shows, users still print a significant number of pages. We haven’t seen evidence that our users read a book online from beginning to the end.
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Popescu shared her views of an ideal world, where print books and e-books co-exist to enrich the reading experience. In her ideal world, the e-book content will display and look the same regardless of its origin; after all, the book, as a physical object, is just an interface for transmitting wisdom, ideas, and knowledge, from the author, to the reader. In her ideal world, the user will own simple tools to customize the look and feel of the e-book and it will be up to the user to interact with the text, to customize it in whatever way he or she may need or want.
Consumers would pay only once for the content of the book they want to own, and would have the means to store and access it at any time they please, in any format I want, using any type of device they would own. The library budget would only pay for the content acquired not for special additional of each platform developed by the vendor or commercial publisher who sells the content. And publishers and libraries would work together to ensure that the publication output will survive technological revolutions, or financial and economic crises, by establishing sustainable digital archiving solutions for e-books, similar to those established for e-journals.
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Priscilla Treadwell noted that the Princeton University Press, nearly 100 years after its founding, is expanding its traditional holdings to include new media. The press made its first foray into the world of e-books by offering 300 of its books in that form. The market was fragmented somewhat by competing formats, a problem that persists to this day. The press offered its e-books in multiple formats and through aggregators who served the broad library community.
When the internet bubble burst in 2001, only a handful of electronic vendors survived. The Press, like many others, scaled back its efforts. Recent developments in the industry suggest that the e-book market has finally arrived. Books are now high discoverable and viewable on the internet. Demand from libraries continues to grow. And dedicated reading devices like the Amazon Kindle, the Sony Reader, and mobile readers are making e-books far more accessible.
The Press therefore decided last year to re-engage in electronic publishing. At first, the Press permitted 10% of their books to be viewed prior to purchase. They have now upped that amount to 20% and some publishers permit even more. Such previews within Google Book search lead to sales.
Through the Press web site, you can purchase books in the usual way. There is also provision for purchasing e-books. The Press released its first e-book, Robert Shiller’s The Subprime Solution, two weeks ahead of the regular book release. 156 copies of the e-book were sold prior to publication with sales picking up substantially in the past few weeks with the recent economic crisis.
The Press has now released a catalog of its 260 e-books. More will be added with time.
A podcast and the presentations are available.

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