12 Jan 2014

Portable eReaders and the academic library context

Portable eReaders, such as Kindles, are perceived as intuitive and easy to use devices. Users tend to learn quickly enough how to operate them, simply by switching them on and playing with them for a while

Based on this convention, introducing an e-reader circulation programme within the context of the academic library should be a straight forward feat. After all, they are already a common feature in many lending public and academic libraries.

This was also the case at Oregon State University Libraries (OSU) where a successful Kindle e-reader circulation programme was introduced back in 2009. Even though the lending service is a success and despite the general growth of e-reader usage out there (see device ownership trend data here), patrons asked hardly any questions about portable eReaders and their use within the academic library context at OSU.

So OSU librarians wanted to find out more about eReader user perceptions and attitudes and decided to conduct a study among OSU library and press staff. A mix of eReader models (8 Kindle Keyboards, 8 Nook Simple Touches, 7 Kobo Touches and 7 Sony PRS-350 Reader Pocket Editions) was purchased and gifted to a study population of 30 participants. As part of the deal to keep their eReaders, all participants were obliged to participate in a qualitative research project, which aimed to 1) understand the difficulties and hurdles participants encountered when using an e-reader; 2) explore factors that influenced participants in their decision to adopt or reject e-reader technology; and 3) understand how knowledge of e-reader technology could or would lead to enhanced library services.

The researchers explored questions one and two by applying Rogers’ innovation decision process. Over a period of 12 months, four interviews were conducted.

Participants’ attitudes towards their eReaders were dominantly sceptical before use. Concerns included cost of ownership, the (in)ability to borrow books for free, a preference of the print book over e-books, preference for a multi-functional device, rapidly changing technology and general technology aversion. Even though over 90% of study participants felt it was important to know about eReaders as part of their work, only 40% had encountered work situations where knowledge about them would have been useful.

Below is a table of common challenges participants’ encountered when they started to use their allocated eReaders:

Finding content
“I found a book finally. Finding something [in the OSULP catalogue] that was really an e-book proved to be harder than I expected.”
Accessing content
“And I couldn’t find one [e-book] that would work with the Kindle.”
Transferring/ syncing content
“It downloaded to my computer, but not to my e-reader, and I didn’t know what to do at that point.”
Getting device going
“Figuring out how to navigate in the thing was frustrating. And the display was not immediately intuitive.”
Instructions/getting started
“The instructions that come with the device tell you only how to charge it and turn it on. It has nothing to do with how you download anything.”
Preconceived ideas
“Some part of me just assumed it was wireless because I just thought, of course it’s going to be wireless.”
Using content on device
“It was a PDF, so I had an issue with making it larger to read and then having to move around sideways and up and down to read it. Not fun.”

(Table Source: Hussong-Christian, U. et al., 2013)
“It’s annoying that when you finish a book, it tells you if you like this one then maybe you want to buy this one. That is a commercial experience. That when you turn it off there is always an ad on it.”

Another challenge for eReader usage is the nature of reading materials being downloaded and consumed. Most participants downloaded leisure reading material to their eReaders rather than scholarly articles. One argument for this is that eReaders are considered more suitable for receptive reading, i.e. reading from a text from beginning to end without critically appraising the ideas, taking notes, or interrupting one’s train of thought.

On the other hand, participants did not consider their e-reader to be practical for responsive reading, i.e. for the purpose of developing new knowledge or modifying existing knowledge by engaging with the idea presented in the text. Other e-reader devices, such as laptops, smartphones and tablets were considered to be a better technological fit for scholarly reading tasks.

At the end of the research project, the vast majority of study participants (60%) rejected their eReaders in favour of alternative portable technologies. Instead, dedicated eBook readers seem to represent a gateway technology to more versatile alternatives, namely tablets and smart phones.

Things to consider when introducing portable technologies for loan to academic library patrons:
- Consider a trial run before introducing a fully fledged eReader loan service
- Provide hands-on training for library staff so that reliable practical support is in place for library users
- Provide adequate access points to e-books from the library catalogue
- Provide adequate user guides and support materials (see example for eReaders and Tablets)
- Run hands-on workshops for library users
- Provide dedicated user support contacts within the library



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