Longitudinal Analysis of Undergraduate E-book Use Finds that Knowledge of Local Communities Drives Format Selection and Collection Development Activities


  • Melissa Goertzen Columbia University Libraries




evidence summary, e-book, user experience, undergraduates


A Review of:
Hobbs, K., & Klare, D. (2016). Are we there yet?: A longitudinal look at e-books through students’ eyes. Journal of Electronic Resources Librarianship, 28(1), 9-24. http://dx.doi.org/10.1080/1941126X.2016.1130451


Objective – To determine undergraduate students’ opinions of, use of, and facility with e-books.

Design – A qualitative study that incorporated annual interview and usability sessions over a period of four years. The protocol was informed by interview techniques used in prior studies at Wesleyan University. To supplement the body of qualitative data, the 2014 Measuring Information Service Outcomes (MISO) survey was distributed; the researchers built five campus-specific e-book questions into the survey.

Setting – A small university in the Northeastern United States of America.
Subjects – 28 undergraduate students (7 per year) who attended summer session between the years of 2011-2014 recruited for interview and usability sessions; 700 full-time undergraduate students recruited for the 2014 MISO survey.

Methods – The method was designed by a library consortium in the Northeastern United States of America. The study itself was conducted by two librarians based at the single university. To recruit students for interview and usability sessions, librarians sent invitations via email to a random list of students enrolled in the university’s summer sessions. Recruitment for the 2014 MISO survey was also conducted via email; the survey was sent to a stratified, random sample of undergraduate students in February 2014.

Interview sessions were structured around five open-ended questions that examined students’ familiarity with e-books and whether the format supports academic work. These sessions were followed by the students’ evaluation of specific book titles available on MyiLibrary and ebrary, platforms accessible to all libraries in the CTW Consortium. Participants were asked to locate e-books on given topics, answer two research questions using preselected e-books, explain their research process using the above mentioned platforms, and comment on the overall usability experience. Instead of taking notes during interview and usability sessions, the researchers recorded interviews and captured screen activity. Following sessions, they watched recordings, took notes independently, and compared notes to ensure salient points were captured.

Due to concerns that a small pool of interview and usability candidates might not capture the overall attitude of students towards e-books, the researchers distributed the 2014 MISO survey between the third and fourth interview years. Five additional campus-specific e-book questions were included. The final response rate was 33%.

Main Results – The results of the interviews, usability studies, and MISO survey suggest that although students use print and electronic formats for complementary functions, 86% would still select print if they had to choose between the formats. Findings indicate that e-books promote discovery and convenient access to information, but print supports established and successful study habits, such as adding sticky notes to pages or creating annotations in margins. With that being said, most students do not attempt to locate one specific format over another. Rather, their two central concerns are that content is relevant to search terms and the full-text is readily available.

Study findings also suggest that students approach content through the lens of a particular assignment. Regardless of format, they want to get in, locate specific information, and move on to the next source. Also, students want all sources – regardless of format – readily at hand and arranged in personal organization systems. PDF files were the preferred electronic format because they best support this research behaviour; content can be arranged in filing systems on personal devices or printed when necessary. Because of these research habits, digital rights management (DRM) restrictions created extreme frustration and were said to impede work. In some cases, students created workarounds for the purpose of accessing information in a usable form. This included visiting file sharing sites like Pirate Bay in order to locate DRM free content.

Findings demonstrated a significant increase in student e-book use over the course of four years. However, this trend did not correspond to increased levels of sophistication in e-book use or facility with build-in functions on e-book platforms. The researchers discovered that students create workarounds instead of seeking out menu options that save time in the long run. This behaviour was consistent across the study group regardless of individual levels of experience working with e-books. Students commented that additional features slow down work rather than creating efficiency. For instance, when keyboard shortcuts used to copy and paste text did not function, students preferred to type out a passage rather than spend time searching for copy functions available on the e-book platform.

Conclusion – Academic e-books continue to evolve in a fluid and dynamic environment. While the researchers saw improvements over the course of four years (e.g., fewer DRM restrictions) access barriers remain, such as required authentication to access platform content. They also identified areas where training sessions lead by librarians could demonstrate how e-books support student research and learning activities.

The researchers also found that user experiences are local in nature and specific to campus cultures and expectations. They concluded that knowledge of local user communities should drive book format selection. Whenever possible, libraries should provide access to multiple formats to support a variety of learning needs and research behaviours.


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Author Biography

Melissa Goertzen, Columbia University Libraries

Melissa Goertzen is an information manager and freelance writer living in New York City. In June 2013, she began work on a two-year assessment project for Columbia University that analyzes the e-book landscape and publishing trends in academic communities. To learn more, please visit her website at melissagoertzen.wordpress.com




How to Cite

Goertzen, M. (2017). Longitudinal Analysis of Undergraduate E-book Use Finds that Knowledge of Local Communities Drives Format Selection and Collection Development Activities. Evidence Based Library and Information Practice, 12(1), 112–115. https://doi.org/10.18438/B8BW5Q



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