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October, 2009:

Does Your Library Have a Vision on e-Books?

I have to say I have a love-hate relationship with e-books. I love the idea of e-books. No matter where I am, I can instantly access it and start reading it on an electronic device. That’s great. As an expatriate, I dream about the day in which all the books I want to read written and published in Korean become available in an electronic format, so that the exorbitant international shipping charge (for heavy heavy books) can be instead used for more books I want to read. I love to underline, highlight and save the passage in an e-book for future references as a text file, so that I don’t need to retype it again later. I want to carry multiple e-books in my smart phone, so that my bag won’t drag me down stuffed with multiple paperbacks.

But how so much I hate e-books! Every time I search for certain books on my library’s online catalog and it turned out that the book is available as an e-book, I grind my teeth. I don’t want to read any books in front of my computer. It simply isn’t my favorite manner of reading books.  And how so much I hate that restriction that I can only print one page at a time from an e-book! You gotta be kidding me to think that I would need one page of a book for my reference purposes whether I am accessing the book via a library or whether I bought it through Amazon or any other online bookstores. Besides,  I want to hold a book in my hands and I want to read it in my comfortable reading chair, not in front of my computer straining my eyes and back. I desperately want a book in paper, particularly the ones that I am going to take some time to read it through. When a book that I look for is not available as an e-book at my library, I get relieved because it means that I can request the book via Interlibrary loan. And I count days until the book arrives! How ironic.

So I am desperate for the growth and maturation of the e-book market. It is just that the vendors are not getting it. That is, what they need to do to make their market to expand. Here are my suggestions.

  • Go for textbook market particularly in science. They are expensive and heavy. And students need them for classes. They will “buy” them.
  • Make e-books “significantly cheaper” than print ones. Unless it is cheaper by 50 % or more, people won’t go for e-books. I would personally pay 30 %. The utility of e-books is much less than that of print books. This applies to particularly for non-textbooks such as fiction, bestsellers, etc.
  • “Standardize” the e-book reader software. Agree on one software that can be used for all types of devices including computer, smart phone, PDA etc. regardless of where they are purchased.
  • “Don’t go crazy on DRM” to make e-book buyers keep entering password every time people open the e-books they already bought. Make it easy for the owner of the e-book to use it.
  • Let e-book owners “own” the book. Don’t make them feel that they pay for ownership but are treated as if they were actually only getting a license for the ebooks they pay for. That’s just unfair.

But I now realize that for e-books to become popular, we also need a right device for them. It may be something like Kindle. But it probably should be better than that. If it can be something like a bendable  touch-screen e-paper with memory and internet connection, that would work great because right now what bothers potential ebook consumers most seems to be the fact that they cannot read e-books like normal paper books. They need a proper device for e-books. But devices currently available for e-books are hardly ideal for comfortable reading.

Phillipse e-paper technology from YouTube

While I was reading a news article about the University Librarian of University of Michigan, Paul Courant, I came to wonder if libraries should have a vision about e-books.

Let’s see what Paul Courant thinks about books at future libraries. (Source:,1)

Despite the advantages of having tangible books on hand, Courant said the University Library’s books will be uselessly sitting on shelves while students browse them on their laptops.“This is blasphemous,” he said. “But it’s true. We don’t need to have 3 million books in the middle of campus.” Courant said he predicts the University Library will use converted files to make materials even more digitally accessible in the future.  “In a few years, most of what I expect will be in the library (will be) in a form where you’ll be able to load it into something that looks like a Kindle or a Sony Reader and read it very easily,” he said.  He added that the stacks will eventually disappear. With this shift, Courant said the role of universities and libraries will become increasingly important as society moves into the “information age,” where loads of information are available at people’s fingertips.  “The problem of converting information into knowledge and knowledge into wisdom is every bit as important as it always was,” he said. “The University is the place that’s going to figure out how to do that, and within it, the library is going to be the place in the University that figures that out.”

Well, if the stacks disappear, I don’t think that it will be any time soon because the current technology for ebook devices are still quite below users’ expectations.

But my question is whether this is something libraries should think about and include in their vision. How do libraries plan to deliver information and knowledge in the future? Is it going to be an espresso book machine that can print out and bind whatever old book that a user happens to need to use? Or is it going to be a computer file that can be downloaded immediately to whatever device a user has in their hands? Or maybe both? It is not a matter of whether it is possible now or not. It is a matter of planning for unpredictable future and doing something about it to make the best vision to come true by conscious efforts. That is something that online bookstores or e-book publishers may not be interested in but something that libraries can play a significant role.

Librarians are mediators between knowledge and people.  Paul Courant says: The problem of converting information into knowledge and knowledge into wisdom is every bit as important as it always was. I see a great role that libraries can play in solving this problem. We are digitizing a lot of information and knowledge. Now how do we want to deliver it to users? Until the mode of access to digitized information and the manner of utilizing it become almost effortless, digitized information will be less than optimal in being absorbed by people to become their knowledge and wisdom.

How Personal Should a Library Be in Social Media?

How many social media accounts does your library maintain? How do you keep them lively and up-to-date? OK, keeping up-to-date part is relatively easy. You just need to post updates on your library’s Facebook page, to add new posts to your library’s blog, and to keep twittering in your library’s Twitter.

However, keeping it lively is much more difficult. How do you draw attention of library users to library’s social media accounts? How can a library provide the feeling that the library is there for you, its users? What it takes might be just the right amount of personal touch.

Jeff Swain recently wrote this blog post, Thoughts on the CIC Tech Forum” which reflcts on this issue.  He says:

“So the question becomes, why should our audience care to follow us? And how do we stay connected with them through these medium? Do we make informal chit-chat or do we simply post official announcements? It’s not a simple question to answer.

I know I struggle with representing myself and my unit in these areas. When I joined Twitter and Facebook I joined as myself (Twitter: jeffswain; Facebook: Jeff Swain). Quickly I encountered the problem of separating my personal stuff from my work stuff. It all bleeds together in the either where everyone can connect. Now I also am the persona for our symposium and e-portfolio initiative. Well, how do I represent them? Is it strictly business or is it personal?”

I struggle with the same question as a librarian who maintains and updates various social media accounts.  How do you engage your audience? The whole point of having a library’s presence in social media is to interact with library users.  But most libraries use their social media tools as an one-way announcement mechanism. While it may work fine for library staff as an easy broadcasting mechanism, how do you ensure that those messages will capture the scarce attention of library users?

social media

Image from

The problem is that people are much more interested in other people than in organizations, and in everyday miscellaneous stuff than in research and other library-related stuff. No matter how interesting library events are and how exciting new library databases can be, it just may not be interesting enough for library users to initiate a conversation with their library. Of course, there is an easy solution to this problem. Librarians can run library’s social media accounts as themselves with a little bit of personal voice added to them. But then, it seems that that is not quite a right thing to do because one individual cannot represent an organization properly.

While I am quite happy to babble about my daily activities in my personal Twitter account, I am often unsure about what to twitter for my library’s Twitter account. I don’t want to keep twittering about library events and research tools because I wonder that may simply bore my library users. But then what else can I twitter about that may be interesting to them without my personal interests mixed in? How should a library’s social media policy reflect address dilemma? What would users want from a library’s social media channels?

Academics and Web 2.0

I was reading an interesting article from Research Information the other day, “Web 2.0 fails to excite today’s researchers” by David Stuart.  My job as a librarian is to help researchers at my institution do their research more efficiently and productively, and technology plays a big role in that.  There is a number of useful tools that can help research, and I am planning regular workshops on those for researchers at my library beginning next semester.

But the nagging question is how much interests it will draw from the target audience, that is, academics.  Librarians often worry about marketing and outreach. But there is also the undeniable fact that researchers like to do their research themselves.  Also, they tend to think that they already know what the best way of going about doing their own research.

Once I was told by a colleague that ILL requests are highly confidential because that may reveal what a researcher is currently working on. That is, nobody wants to be scooped in their research.

I often thought that the promotion guidelines for academic librarians in a faculty system should be changed to put less emphasis on traditional paper publishing and more on services and activities that vitalizes library services and the profession. Perhaps, should something similar take place for academic faculty?  There is no doubt that Web 2.0 technologies open up great possibilities for facilitating and promoting more fresh research agendas.

“Scholarly publishing 2.0 offers much more to the research process than the simple content management system of blogs and wikis. It does not just give the opportunity to help find collaborators for a project, and possibility of easing the communication process within a research group. It also offers the opportunity to publish new forms of data and can blur the barriers of the research group. The traditional research paper has obvious limitations in terms of the type of information that can be conveyed. It is not just video and audio that are unsuitable for the paper format, but also the huge amounts of data that may be collected in the research process. The open data movement is about sharing as much of the data as possible, while the open notebook science movement is about sharing as much of the whole primary record as possible. Both of these are focused on enabling others to use the mass of information behind a journal article to inform further research. The web also offers new opportunities for more open peer review, widening the opportunity for those who want to provide and receive feedback on research.”

Mutual Sharing

Photo from:

But academics have been quite slow in adopting Web 2.0 technologies. Much of it can be blamed on the over-emphasis on the traditional research paper in academia.

“Academics worry as much about being scooped and not getting credit for their work as the potential for slipping standards in scholarship.”

There should be a way to give credit to academics who try an alternative way of scholarly publishing such as blogs, wikis, etc.  Ideas only get better through feedback and open discussion.  Publishing traditional research papers can’t be the only means to contribute to scholarship.  On the other hand, researchers should know that like in any other groups, if you won’t share with others, others’ won’t share with you.

Also, think about the amount of work that goes into writing up one small research paper.  There is a long literature search process.  Large sets of data are often compiled.  Interesting but not necessarily relevant papers are discovered, read, and then set aside.  If these pre-research work can be shared among scholars, how much more effective can research be?

Now, what kind of systems can help us to store, organize, and share such pre-research work?  It is a fertile ground for research.