E-readers in Action
An academic library teams with Sony to assess the technology
Posted Thu, 09/24/2009 - 12:24
E-book reader illustration
E-books are nothing new, and librarians and library patrons have long struggled with their lack of utility.
Reading on a computer screen for long periods of time is not most people’s cup of tea and leads to hundreds of pages-long printouts in many a library lab. However, in early 2008, e-books began to make waves thanks to the launch of Amazon’s Kindle. Featuring a new e-ink technology (grayscale rather than a backlit screen) and a complement of easy-to-download titles, the Kindle brought about a heightened interest in e-books and e-readers. By no coincidence, the Sony Reader, which existed prior to the Kindle, also started showing up in marketing campaigns.
This activity also saw new enhancements in the devices as well as a rise in the number of competitors on the market.
A March 2009 “E-Book Reader Roundup” on Wired.com listed eight different reader devices that are on the market or coming soon, and they’ve recently been joined by the Cool-ER device, which resembles an iPod and features Mac compatibility. But while the race to perfect the e-book reader has continued, the question posed by Stephen Sottong last year in American Libraries (May 2008, p. 47) remains:
“Why would anyone pay $300 to $400 for a dedicated reader device when the display and interface are not as good as a paper book?” Moreover, do e-book readers have a place in libraries or in the classroom? With the realization that e-readers will keep coming, library and classroom texts will continue to move to digital formats, and there is currently no ideal device for those scenarios, librarians at Penn State University proposed a partnership with Sony Electronics in early 2008. We recognized that the libraries are situated at the academic cross roads of the university, and they serve as the content provider and information experts for all disciplines and user populations at Penn State. The libraries were thus the ideal place to introduce the Reader to the university community.
We also realized that in order to influence changes in e-book technologies that will matter to academics and librarians—heavy content users and providers—the libraries needed to work directly with either Amazon or Sony Electronics.
Forming a partnership
In response to the proposal, Sony donated 100 PRS-505 E-Book Readers to the Penn State University Libraries.
The libraries formed a team to manage the project and to oversee collection development and the test scenarios. I served as coleader along with a member of the libraries’ information technology department who managed technical logistics; the team also included three faculty members, among them the English department head. During the course of the project, many individuals took part, including faculty and staff from the libraries’ technical services department, lending desks, and the Office for Digital and Scholarly Communications. (For those who may wonder, the project proposal was also submitted to Amazon, which was not ready for collaboration at the time.)
Central to all aspects of the Penn State Sony Reader Pilot was this question: How do we take a mass-market, consumer-focused device and make it work in an institutional setting? In all honesty, the Sony Reader did not make this an easy question to answer. The Sony Reader’s licensing model, designed for a household of five, allows for a single computer to hold one eLibrary with no more than five associated Readers. Any content purchased for this eLibrary could be downloaded to any or all of those five Readers. Since the Penn State project involved 100 Readers, our challenge was to find a way to efficiently load them with a variety of titles without the need for 20 individual computers.
Through feats of technical acrobatics, we devised a solution that used nine virtual machines on only two dedicated PCs. Sparing the details, this solution involved the creation of separate log-ins and passwords for each eLibrary, as well as an e-mail account with 20 different aliases to track e-book acquisitions. In addition, all of the Readers were cataloged—the records for the lending Readers included contents notes to enable title discoverability—and they were outfitted with protective cases, barcodes, and identification labels.
Through the pilot, which lasted the entire 2008–09 academic year, Sony Readers were put through the paces in many different scenarios. In addition to library lending, they were used in two honors first-year English courses each semester, one English graduate seminar class, and a library studies first-year seminar class. Some Readers were also tested in support of disability services for students with learning and visual impairments, but met with absolute failure in that setting.
Not a slam dunk
The library lending program was promoted in conjunction with the campus’s new leisure reading collection. Five Readers were preloaded with thematic collections of bestselling titles during the fall 2008 semester. When we learned from our users that theme didn’t matter and variety was king, we added more Readers to the fleet, and consolidated titles into one large preloaded library rather than having several different ones. During the semester, each Reader was checked out continuously, each patron keeping it for the entire four-week lending period. While these patrons offered valuable feedback, the lending period for the spring 2009 semester was shortened so that more people would have an opportunity to try out the new service and assist in assessment.