Web Magazine for Information Professionals

It's the End of the World As We Know It (and I Feel Fine), Or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the E-Book

Sarah Ormes explores the e-book from a Public Libraries perspective.

For years we’ve dreamed of the paperless office and foretold the death of the printed book, but my desk stubbornly remains cluttered with paper, my home full of books and my bag weighed down with reports. But finally these electronic dreams seem to be about to come true - e-books have arrived and are available at a Web site near you.

What is an e-book?

The term ‘e-book’ actually has several meanings. It can mean any text or monograph which is made available in an electronic format. For example, many amateur authors publish their work online in the form of web pages and these online works may be referred to as e-books. Similarly a story sent in an e-mail, made available in Word format or even in plain text could also be referred to as an e-book.

Increasingly though, e-book is the term used for an electronic monograph which has been professionally edited and encrypted in some way. This type of e-book is produced by traditional publishing houses like Harper Collins [1] or Schuster & Schuster [2] and requires the use of special software. The software reproduces the electronic text in a format designed to be easy on the eye and prevents it from being copied or printed out.

To make things even more confusing the term ‘e-book’ is also used for the dedicated piece of equipment which people may use to read their e-book texts on. The proper term for this equipment is ‘e-book reader’.

E-book Readers

There are three main types of e-book readers. These are

  • Dedicated readers
  • Handhelds
  • PCs

Dedicated Readers

Dedicated readers are what most people think of when they hear the term ‘e-book’. These have been designed specifically for reading electronic texts. They are generally about the size and weight of a hardback book and have a large backlit colour or greyscale touch sensitive screen. Most dedicated readers can store up to 10-15 books at one time and may also be able to play sound and video. Users can alter the size of the text display, add notes, do keyword searches and insert electronic bookmarks. Two buttons allow the user to page up and down through the text although a hyperlinked table of contents allows direct access to specific sections of each book. The market leader for e-book readers is at the moment the Rocket eBook [3]. However, the company which owns Rocket eBook, Gemstar [4], has recently launched two newer models called catchily the RCA REB 1100 and the RCA REB 1200. Other competitors in the field include the eBookman [5].


Handhelds are also known as Personal Digital Assistants or Palmtop computers. These are small (a bit bigger than a pack of cards) lightweight computers which are designed to provide some of the functionality of a PC (e-mail, calendars, web access, limited text editing) without the weight or size of laptops. The market leaders in this field are Palm [6], Handspring [7] and PocketPCs [8]. These devices can be turned into e-book readers by installing freely available e-book software. Handhelds are much lighter than dedicated e-book readers but have much smaller screens which tend to be of lower quality. They can store fewer books at one time due to their smaller memories but have the advantage of greater functionality i.e. you can use them to do other things than read e-books.


PCs can also be used as e-book readers. Again special software is needed to convert the PC or laptop into an e-book reader. This software uses special fonts to make text easier on the eye and encrypts the book so it can’t be copied or printed. The two market leaders for this software currently are Glassbook [9] and Microsoft Reader [10].

What about standards?

E-book standards are still in development and currently different e-book software packages use different standards. For example, e-books developed for a Palm based OS system will use different technical standards than e-books developed for use with Microsoft Reader. This is an issue which the e-book industry is currently grappling with and a common e-book standard is currently under development [11].

How do you buy books and what do they cost?

Buying e-books is a relatively simple procedure. E-books are bought online usually through an e-book shop although some authors and publishers are experimenting with selling direct to their readers. You simply search the catalogue, select the book you want, add it to your electronic shopping basket and purchase it using a credit card. It is only at this point that the process differs from buying print books online. Instead of waiting a few days for the book to be delivered, the e-book is available within seconds as a direct download. Books may be downloaded to the hard-drive of a PC (which acts as a bookshelf for the e-book) or kept in a virtual bookshelf. Virtual bookshelves are maintained by e-book vendors for their customers and are accessed by passwords. Users simply log into their account when they wish to download a purchased book to their e-book reader. Virtual bookshelves mean that if a user’s PC is stolen they do not lose their whole library of e-books too.

Most e-books cost the same or slightly less than their print equivalent. Prices typically tend to be in dollars as most e-book vendors are based in America. For example, Amazon.com [12] is selling the recent new John Le Carre novel in hardback for $22.40 (plus p&p) whereas the Peanut Press [13] e-book version costs $19.60 (but there is no p&p of course!). Another example is Bag of Bones by Stephen King, this is available at Amazon in hardback for $22.40 and in e-book format from Peanut Press for $19.55 - however this book is also available in paperback format at Amazon for $7.19. E-books are therefore comparatively expensive and their lower production and delivery costs are not being passed onto the purchaser.

What’s available?

There are an estimated 50,000 e-book texts available. This number is increasing rapidly as traditional publishers begin to make their new publications available in e-book format. In addition, organisations like Net Library [14] are buying up the rights to many publications already available in print and converting them into e-books. The choice of books being made available is being influenced heavily by the typical profile of the e-book purchaser. E-book owners are typically technologically minded and likely to be males in their 20s and 30s. Consequently a large percentage of the e-books published are aimed at this market with science fiction and technology books dominating.

Integrating e-books into libraries

The challenge for libraries is how to integrate this new format of texts into the traditional library service model. E-books are not physical items and so do not fit into existing acquisition or circulation models.

Circulating e-book readers

The initial response to providing library users with access to e-books has been to circulate e-book readers. The e-book readers are loaded with a number of texts, for example Riding the Bullet by Stephen King [15]. These texts are catalogued as usual and included in the OPAC. If a library user wishes to read Riding the Bullet the catalogue record will direct the user to the enquiry desk where an e-book reader will be issued. The e-book reader will have a loan period like any other item borrowed from the library and the library user must return the e-book reader at the end of the period. The library user cannot personally download books to the e-book reader or read the library’s e-books on his or her own reader. Algonquin Area Public Library, USA is an example of a public library already providing this service. A useful FAQ about how it manages this service is available on its Web site [16].

Circulating pre-loaded e-book readers may just be a short-term solution to the issue of how to integrate e-books into the library. By circulating the e-book readers the libraries are providing both text and the equipment to read it. This would be equivalent to a library circulating both a video cassette and a video player. However, as the penetration of e-book readers into the market is still very low the circulation of readers is still required.

Circulating e-books

In the longer term libraries will simply circulate e-books for users to read on their own e-book readers. As e-books are electronic files, library users will be able to download them directly from the library’s catalogue. They may choose to do this in the library itself or most probably via the library’s Web site. This will mean the library user will no longer have to physically visit a service point to borrow or return library books.

Each e-book borrowed will be automatically issued with an encrypted certificate. As well as including information about how long the book is available for loan, the certificate will also prevent it from being copied to another reader. At the end of the loan period this certificate will become invalid and the e-book will automatically delete itself from the library user’s e-book reader. The library catalogue will then automatically make a copy of this e-book available for loan again. No overdue notices need to be sent out, no fines need to be collected and the library does not need to be visited.

The integration of e-books into circulation systems is likely to be managed in one of two ways:

  1. Existing systems suppliers will develop new modules for current library management systems which allow the integration of e-books into the acquisition and circulation process. In this model traditional book suppliers will expand their services to include e-books.
  2. New organisations that specialise in supplying e-books to libraries will manage the administration of the e-books on the library’s behalf. These suppliers will manage the acquisition and record management for the texts. They will provide MARC records for insertion into the library’s traditional OPAC and support the integration of the library’s current acquisition system into their service. Authentication procedures will be put in place to enable the library’s users to access this online library either from within the library or through its Web site. NetLibrary is an example of a company already offering this service. Currently its e-books can only be read via a PC or laptop but dedicated reader and handheld versions are due soon.

Stock selection models

The e-book gives the library the potential to provide its readers with any book within minutes. At present library users can only immediately borrow what is physically held in the library. If the library doesn’t hold the required book the user will have to wait for it either to be sent from another library in that authority or request it via Inter Library Loan. In an e-book environment if a user requests a book the library does not hold, the library can purchase it immediately and provide the reader with it within minutes. The librarian will simply need to log on to its book supplier’s site, purchase the relevant e-book, download it straight to the library’s catalogue and then issue it to the library user. This process is likely to take only a few minutes.

The instant access of e-books has strong implications for the traditional collection development model. Public libraries tend to buy most books using the just-in-case model. Books are bought in expectation of demand. The librarians choose what they think their public wants to or even should be reading. Developing an e-book collection could mean moving to a just-in-time model – with the readers’ demands being met within minutes of their requests. This would mean that the library more accurately buys books which its users want but not necessarily books which librarians think they should have!

The development of workable e-book acquisition policies may be a time-consuming issue. Possibly, libraries may still pre-select a large percentage of their e-book collection for their users (based on traditional selection criteria) with a smaller percentage of the stock selected as a direct result of reader requests.


For libraries, the next few years will be challenging - e-books will alter the way in which they circulate, acquire and manage their collections. It really could be the end of the library world as we know it. But if e-books deliver their promise and allow libraries to more effectively and efficiently meet the demands of their users - then I feel fine.


[1] Harper Collins
[2] Schuster and Schuster
[3] Rocket eBook
[4] Gemstar
[5] Ebookman
[6] Palm
[7] Handspring
[8] Pocket PC
[9] Glassbook
[10] Microsoft Reader
[11] Open ebook forum
[12] Amazon.com
[13] PeanutPress
[14] NetLibrary
[15] Riding the Bullet - Stephen King
[16] Algonquin Area Public Library E-book FAQ

The UKOLN E-book test

I’ve been testing different types of e-book readers over the last few months.

Rocket ebook

In Summer 2000 UKOLN purchased a Rocket eBook which cost £160. First impressions were good. It was lighter than expected and intuitive to use. The quality of text presentation was good and was easy on the eye. The backlit screen worked very well and it was still easy to read in bright sunshine and in the dark. This proved to be a great boon if you like reading in bed at night but your partner prefers the lights off.

The e-book connected to a PC via a dedicated cradle which also acted its recharger (the typical battery length of the e-book is 40 hours). Software had to be installed on a PC before any books could be downloaded. The installation process was very quick and easy and provides an interface which allows you to manage your e-book collection. This interface converts the hard drive of the PC into a long term bookshelf for the purchased e-books. When you wish to read an e-book you simply download a temporary copy onto the reader which can be deleted when you’ve finished with it.

In general the e-book was easy to use and compared well with print books. You could still highlight text, make annotations and insert bookmarks. The size of the text could be altered which proved a big hit with my in-laws who liked the fact that they could read the e-book without their glasses. It was also possible to read Word documents on the e-book which seemed a good idea. However, to make them accessible on the e-book they first had to be converted into HTML (always an erratic procedure in Word) and then converted into a Rocket eBook format using a free piece of software called RocketWriter - the end result was not always very familiar!

One problem with the e-book was its weight - although it compared well with a hardback it was far heavier than a paperback. Long reading sessions resulted in tired wrists rather than tired eyes! A far greater problem was a purely mental one. Purchasing a book to read (A Widow for A Year by John Irving if you’re interested) was technically very easy but mentally difficult. E-books are over priced. I seldom buy hardbacks because of their cost and consequently was put off by the high cost of e-books. I only read one book on the e-book not because of the technology but because of the high cost of the e-books!


Recently I’ve bought my first handheld PC and have been exploring how viable they are as e-book readers. Unsurprisingly they are no way as comfortable or easy to use as the dedicated readers. I use a Handspring Visor which probably has an average or slightly below average screen quality. The display is greyscale and reasonably pixelated. This means that screen quality doesn’t really compare very well with the Rocket eBook or a PC. Due to the size of the screen a considerable amount of scrolling is involved in reading even the smallest amount of text. Again text size can be altered and usually the reader software (I used PeanutReader) can be set to scroll the text automatically at a suitable speed. This is quite a nice idea but the low quality screen makes it a rather visually jarring experience. E-books for handhelds are downloaded again via a PC and then hotsynced to the handheld.

Handhelds provide a convenient way to read electronic text but are let down by the size of the screen and the quality of its resolution. With colour screens and better resolution, handhelds could easily be used to read e-books but won’t challenge the dominance of print books because of the small screen size.


PC’s are perhaps the most cumbersome way to read e-books but also the most sophisticated. Packages like Glassbook and Microsoft Reader convert text on a PC screen into something more like text in a book. The use of subtle colours, clever fonts and clear design is meant to transform the PC reading experience. Text is easier to read and the experience is less tiring for the eye. The use of full colour, the large screen and additionally functionality are all huge boons - however they can’t get over the fact that, well a PC is a PC. Unlike a PDA or a dedicated reader you can’t really curl up with a PC or even a laptop and quite frankly I spend enough time sitting at my PC as it is without doing my leisure reading this way too.

Overall Conclusions

The dedicated reader I experimented with was surprisingly impressive. I read practically the whole text of A Widow for a Year using it and found the experience very easy (the fact that I didn’t quite finish reading the book is more John Irving’s fault that the e-book). The reader was easy to carry and had a very good battery life. It was intuitive to use and it was easy to purchase books for it (from the limited range available). Would I use it instead of normal books? I’d be tempted but at the moment the price of e-books is too much of a barrier for me. If e-books become cheaper and the cost of an e-book reader also decreases then I might be tempted - in fact I’d be very tempted. In the meantime I’m going to stick with paper books mainly for financial reasons.


Author Details


Sarah Ormes