E-readers in Action

An academic library teams with Sony to assess the technology

September 24, 2009

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.)

Institutional issues

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.

Overall, the survey responses revealed that reading is an intensely individual experience: Each person had a different take on whether they enjoyed using the Sony Reader and whether they would use one again. Most respondents pointed out known issues with the devices: unsatisfactory battery life and difficulty recharging, slow refresh time when turning pages, glare on the page, and an expensive purchase price.

And while patrons enjoyed having a variety of titles to choose from, many of them did not read more than one, raising the question of whether the preloaded content model of lending makes sense: Why monopolize many books at once when the patron only wants one or two? To support this sentiment, some patrons requested an on-demand model of service. This may be feasible at a smaller institution where the staff member who loads content onto the Readers would also be serving patrons at the circulation desk. Unfortunately, the current hardware-dependent technology model is not scalable to a larger academic setting, particularly a library-supported one. At Penn State many people staff the lending desk, which is open 24 hours a day, five days a week, and loading content would require access to the two dedicated PCs and the many virtual machine profiles—a training nightmare. This was a major finding the researchers shared with Sony Electronics. A wireless download capability might make this situation slightly more bearable; however, the Kindle also requires an individual account to be created for every five devices and therefore does not lift any of the logistical burdens.

E-readers in the classroom

In both the English and library studies classes, students were issued Readers preloaded with the content for the class. In addition, students in the library studies class were given a small selection of popular leisure titles to peruse. The focus of this class was navigation, critique, and synthesis of information sources and tools/formats. Students were asked to reflect on their experiences with the Readers and other course topics via blog posts, and they also participated in regular user-experience surveys to give feedback on the Sony Reader devices specifically.

In addition to providing feedback that echoes that from the patrons who borrowed Sony Readers, the students answered questions that gave insight into when and how they used the devices, and what they thought would make them suitable for college students. Their responses reveal that although the Sony Reader is a single-function device, the majority of students did not refrain from multitasking while using it: Nearly 67% of them were engaged in other activities while reading. Additionally, although the Sony Reader is a mobile device, most of the students used it only in their dorm rooms; while they were not specifically asked why they chose a location, their complaints about inability to make in-text notes and easily navigate pages might point to the need to be close to their computers, notebooks, and other course materials while doing assigned readings on the devices. While none of the students completely agreed on what would make the device better suited to academe, many of them expressed a desire for greater interactivity with the text, as well as multimedia functionality and wireless capability.

The students in the honors English course engaged with an extensive reading list on their Sony Readers in a class that also required a great deal of reflective writing. In addition, the English classes were encouraged to do their own content loading, including experimentation with RSS feeds (a clunky process that requires help from free-download software called Calibre to convert the RSS feeds into Sony's proprietary .lrf file format). Their feedback was gathered through a series of videotaped interviews and in end-of-semester presentations given to an audience of faculty from the libraries and English departments as well as a representative from Sony. These classes were offered again in spring 2009, the primary difference being that the instructors were graduate assistants who were also using the Sony Reader in their own studies.

Early video and presentation analysis reveals that the students read differently when using their Sony Readers instead of books or computer screens: They felt more immersed in the text (some of this may be attributed to the difficulty in navigating to bookmarks and salient passages, requiring more thorough reading and digestion of the text on the first reading). The students adapted to the navigational challenges of the Sony Readers, creating notecards and post-its to assist in information recall, but would like to avoid this in the future. Many of the students in the English classes were in majors outside of the humanities, and they felt strongly that current e-reader technology is not adaptable to the hard sciences, whose texts are rich with color and diagrams, and are not often read in sequence from cover to cover. Most of the students were hesitant to commit to purchasing an e-reader any time in the near future; they weren't sure whether they'd use it outside of assignments, and the price is too high for a college student. They were also unsure how they felt about university-funded Readers because of their lack of application in the sciences; most were sure they'd end up having to purchase additional paper books as well, making the proposition even more expensive.

As primary content-providers on campus, libraries are positioned to make a difference in the way content is delivered and digested. Features such as color e-ink, interaction with the text, portability, and integration with other applications such as phone, music, and computing remain on the desired list of functions e-readers should have.

Of course, many more reading devices are coming down the pike: Amazon has released the DX and is partnering with several universities, as well as textbook publishers, during the 2009–10 academic year. Details are still under wraps, but this pilot project represents another positive step toward information consumers influencing the directions e-content and e-reader technologies will take.

In terms of both available content and reading devices, we are a long way from the ideal product, but there is much that libraries can do to be part of the equation when it comes to the future of reading. Where content is concerned, libraries can do better; that starts with listening to and observing our patrons' reading habits and preferences. We can be choosier about our e-content vendors, favoring those who offer a product that adapts to our users' needs, rather than forcing them into one-page-at-a-time viewing and/or printing on an eye-straining computer screen. We can continue to work with publishers and vendors on the development of their products so that they meet the needs of the academic information consumer, and we can continue to involve our students in that development. Finally, we can work to influence the hardware inventors, who may one day come up with a technology model that is scalable to an academic setting.

Like all paradigm shifts, those occurring in reading and publishing breed a nervous excitement. Libraries are positioned to harness that energy and be at the forefront in changing and creating better e-book and e-reader services for our patrons.


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