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Assessing E-book and Print Book User Behavior in Academic Libraries

Study Background & Goals

The landscape for scholarly book use is changing. More books are available in electronic format, new forms of scholarship are emerging, the use of mobile devices is growing, and the corpus of digitized texts is expanding. With these changes, the ways in which scholars interact with books, both electronic and print, is also evolving.

In the fall of 2015, the University of California, Santa Cruz (UCSC) and the California Digital Library (CDL) conducted a focus group study of graduate students from various disciplines to better understand how students use print books and e-books for their academic work. Using the findings from the study, CDL hopes to help libraries develop the best services and strategies for managing and providing access to existing and prospective book collections.

Study Methodology

In October of 2015, a call for participation was sent to all arts, education, history and literature graduate students at UCSC from the University Librarian’s office. In total, 31 students participated in the study. The focus group questions emphasized both participants’ actual behaviors and their preferences to explore when, why, and how graduate students use print books and e-books to support their research.

Key Findings

“I think that the way we engage with print media is different than the way we engage with things like a screen.” – Focus group participant

Print books are not going away soon, at least in the social science, arts and humanities areas

Despite extensive e-book use, the majority of participants reported that their most recently used book was print and that their preferred format is print. When asked about the format of the book last used, 80.6% of participating graduate students had used a print book. Of those print book users, 40% obtained the book through a UCSC library, 36% obtained it through ILL, and 32% purchased their print book.

Interlibrary loans are valued but with room for improvement.

ILL is recognized for the opportunity it affords — enabling users to obtain print books available on campus with relative ease. While students are generally satisfied with the service, the usefulness of ILL can be improved by providing delivery estimates, particularly for those ILL requests fulfilled within the UC system, and clearer renewal processes.

Access restrictions and usability challenges can make e-books frustrating to use.

The biggest factor that impact students’ format selection is accessibility and usability. Print is consistently considered to be easily accessible and convenient to use, especially for a long and deep reading. On the other hand, a long list of access restrictions and usability challenges of e-books were discussed by the majority of the students, including watermarks, limited number of pages that can be downloaded, limited number of simultaneous users, navigation difficulties, content version control, limited annotation functionality, e-reader incompatibility, incorrect paginations, and others.

Reading online can cause physical discomfort.

Many students complained that they have experienced fatigue, worsened eyesight, back pain and other physical discomfort while reading online, especially for a long and deep reading. The physical discomfort is mainly associated with reading on computer screens. Students reading on e-readers reported less physical discomfort.

Learning experiences are better with print books

Students indicated that their reading experiences are much better with print books, especially for a long deep reading, because of print physicality and fewer distractions. Physicality of reading is an important factor in the reading experience. Navigating print text often creates a sense of space in print books, while scrolling seamless online text can lose the sense of space and the context of the entire text.

Some reading behaviors are enhanced by e-book use, some pose challenges.

E-books provide annotation alternatives.

Annotation is considered by most of the students as an important part of the reading process. Theoretically, library print copies cannot be annotated. Participants cited the use of notebooks, bookmarks and sticky-notes to avoid marking up library print books. However, e-books that libraries licensed can allow users to annotate either through e-book platform or through a third party annotation tool.

Multi-tasking during reading is easier with e-books.

Students often need to read, write and research at the same time. They highly value e-books’ search, copy and paste feature, so that they can write while reading. The hyperlinks on e-books can make research easier as well.

Repetitive deep reading is convenient with print books.

Students reported that they may need to consult a book multiple times during their research and it is convenient to use print books for a long and deep reading. A few students indicated that repetitive reading is one of the reasons for purchasing their own print copies. However, if it is to look up information quickly, it can be inconvenient for users to check-out the book from the library more than once. From that perspective, e-books can be more accessible.

Recursive reading is better supported by print books.

Reading is not a linear, but a recursive process. It requires reading back and forth and comparing content between pages and books, which is easier with print books.

E-readers create better reading experiences with room for improvement.

Students reported better reading experiences with the help of technologies like tablets and e-readers, compared to reading on the computer screen. Students said that in some cases, they comprehended better with e-readers, and e-readers can provide a similar level of physicality as print books with less physical discomfort and much improved usability. However, not all of the books are compatible with e-readers and not all the e-readers functions are working well now. There is still room for improvement for e-reader technology.

Other research studies have suggested that reading can happen as effectively with e-books as with print books.

Researchers have studied the differences of learning experience between print text and electronic text for over 20 years now. Some studies indicate that reading print text holds unique advantages due to physicality in reading, deep reading, and both immediate and long term comprehension. However, the most recent research suggests that reading can be as effective with e-books as with print books, especially with help of e-readers and other advanced technologies. During many experimental studies, students received close comprehension scores between reading print and electronic text, and e-readers are proved to enhance overall learning experience.

Next Steps

In order to turn the challenges identified by this study into opportunities, libraries need to continue to investigate the needs of students around print and e-books. Approaches to further assessment include:

  • evaluating ways to improve print ILL service within the UC system
  • conducting product evaluations on e-book platforms and working with publishers to improve user experiences
  • providing better training and technology support to encourage students’ digital learning

CDL intends to expand upon this initial study by partnering with other interested campuses to study a larger pool of users. By continuing to assess user behavior, delivery method and usability, CDL hopes to provide UC libraries with an informed and unified approach to building strong book collections.

Project contact: Assistant Director of Systemwide Licensing (vacant, interim contact