Ebooks and School Libraries

Schools face unique challenges in their efforts to offer digital texts

January 13, 2012

In their efforts to implement ebooks, school libraries face a set of challenges that differ from those confronting their public and academic counterparts. In addition to the struggle they share with other types of libraries to offer current bestselling fiction ebooks, school libraries are also working to secure backlist fiction, curriculum-focused nonfiction, and multiple copies of books for group use. At the same time, however, they are fortunate to have a strong working relationship with many different publishers and vendors that work within the K–12 market.

To better explore these challenges and advantages, it helps to consider a few different school library ebook-use scenarios. A common desire in K–12 buildings is to adopt ebook readers as a replacement for costly and heavy printed texts. An English department that considered making this change was stymied by the lack of availability of some of the texts on their reading list. Although Ray Bradbury recently relented and allowed the publication of an ebook version of Fahrenheit 451, other English-class standards like To Kill a Mockingbird, Catcher in the Rye, and The Good Earth remain unavailable in digital formats. Whether due to author reluctance or publisher apathy, this lack of e-texts can put a serious damper on ebook adoption in school libraries.

This is not the case, however, when it comes to reference and research materials. A great deal of nonfiction at the K–12 level is already available in a variety of formats and under various licensing terms. Facilitating their use as part of a class project, many of the books can be secured with unlimited, simultaneous-access rights. Publishers are also working to enrich their ebooks to better meet the new Common Core State Standards. For example, enhanced social studies ebooks from Rosen Publishing include maps, timelines, and primary-source documents. Larger publishers of reference works are also working with school libraries to meet their specialized needs for district access to a common set of resources. Many publishers and vendors in the school library sector are working with districts and library systems to provide consortia-access pricing.

Group pricing, whether for consortia access or simultaneous users, remains an issue. Some schools have tried working with e-reader hardware such as the Amazon Kindle and the Barnes & Noble Nook. Yet the consumer-focused model that these bookstore-based devices follow has proven less than ideal for schools. It is difficult—or, in the case of Apple’s iPad and iBookstore, impossible—to purchase multiple copies of a book for use by multiple students in a reading group. Although Barnes & Noble has launched a new educational-purchase program that offers bulk discounts on e-readers, the way the company handles assigning books and specific hardware to groups still leaves much to be desired for school libraries.

One of the areas of greatest potential for ebooks in school libraries is in accommodating students with special needs. The US Department of Education–funded BookShare.org program supplies free DAISY-formatted ebooks, offering text-to-speech enhancements with read-along highlighting to students with a qualifying print or visual disability. Other publishers, including Capstone and Orca, provide ebooks in the high-interest/low reading level (hi-lo) field. Using ebook readers that mask the book title, students can have successful reading experiences without suffering social stigma. E-readers that use E Ink screens, such as the Kindle and Nook, have also proven highly successful for struggling readers thanks to the single-page display that lets students focus on the present without worrying about the pages to come.

In the end, school libraries around the country are continuing to look forward to a future rich with ebooks. The school library sector has a symbiotic relationship with small, independent publishers and vendors, akin to that between academic libraries and university presses. Individual libraries are trying different programs to see what works, and the publishers and vendors in the K–12 market are working with school libraries in a strong partnership. Their efforts have been most successful in nonfiction and reference resources, but school libraries are hoping to work with public libraries to meet bestseller fiction needs. In addition, ebook adoption seems to be most successful and efficient at the district or regional level, though individual libraries are having great success with small trial programs as well.

CHRISTOPHER HARRIS is director of the School Library System for the Genesee Valley Educational Partnership in New York State and blogs at American Libraries’ E-Content.