“But I Want a Real Book”: An Investigation of Undergraduates’ Usage and Attitudes toward Electronic Books

Cynthia L. Gregory

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During the fall of 2004, the Head of Electronic Resources at the College of Mount St. Joseph’s Archbishop Alter Library conducted a survey using a paper-based questionnaire and administered it to several randomly chosen undergraduate courses. The goal of the study was to investigate the college’s undergraduates’ usage and attitudes toward electronic books. The study grew from the college librarians’ informal observations of students’ reactions, many times negative, to e-books over a four-year period. Results ran counter to what one might expect of undergraduates belonging to the Millennial or “net” generation. The findings show that students have mixed feelings about using e-books; students will use e-books but prefer using traditional print books. The study gives insight into where electronic and print media are in the current academic realm.

When electronic books first appeared on the commercial market in the 1990s, many information technology experts predicted that print books would become obsolete.1 Despite the paperless-society predictions, the printed book persists into the digital twenty-first century and remains a much utilized and integral part of our research, media, and leisure cultures. At the same time, e-books (both Web-based and device-based) have experienced continued growth and an undeniable presence despite their own growing pains in recent years.

After the dot-com crash in 2000, many e-book vendors folded or merged with other companies. In fact, of the twenty-four initial e-book firms, only eight are still active.2 The e-book market initially weathered this change by shifting focus away from device-based models toward Web-based databases. Currently, trends in the e-book market reflect concentrations in three areas: (1) Web-based aggregated collections with academic content, such as reference, business, and information technology; (2) audio e-books, due in large part to the combined popularity and ubiquity of Harry Potter audio books and iPods; and (3) a curious resurgence in dedicated e-book devices, such as the 2006 Sony Reader and the 2007 Kindle Reader from Amazon.3

Academic libraries have long served “as repositories of the written word, regardless of the particular medium used to store the words.”4 As early adopters of e-books, college and university libraries have continued adding these electronic texts and other multimedia to library collections. For students in an academic environment, Web-based electronic books such as netLibrary offer twenty-four-hour access to research orientated e-content from anywhere, whether it is a wireless laptop or a dorm-room desktop. While usage data may indicate that patrons access these e-book databases, what the data does not tell us is our students’ attitudes toward e-books.


During the fall of 2004, the Head of Electronic Resources at the College of Mount St. Joseph’s Archbishop Alter Library conducted a survey that investigated undergraduates’ usage and attitudes toward e-books. The study grew from the college librarians’ informal observations of students’ reactions (often negative) to e-books over a four-year period. The Archbishop Alter Library obtained the e-book database netLibrary in 2000 through its OhioLINK membership. To replicate simultaneous use, checkout time for each netLibrary book was limited to two hours. In subsequent years, other e-book databases were added to the library’s collection, including Safari Tech Books Online, ABC-Clio Reference Books, and Oxford Reference Online. The librarians heavily marketed these resources to students, faculty, and staff. In particular, they promoted these resources with brochures, bookmarks, Web pages, campus-wide e-mail announcements, and during instruction sessions. In an effort to increase access and exposure, the library’s Technical Services Department loaded approximately thirteen thousand netLibrary e-book MARC records into FOCUS, the library’s OPAC. There is evidence showing that adding e-book titles to a library’s catalog is strongly related to an increased use of the collection.5 Indeed, following this addition, netLibrary usage by College of Mount St. Joseph patrons rose dramatically and remained steady through 2004 (table 1).

But while e-book usage increased from 2000 to 2004, so did students’ negative comments about the format. On the “front lines” at the library’s refer-ence desk, many of the college’s librarians began to notice during reference interviews that students who encountered e-book records while searching the library’s online catalog were reluctant to pursue them. In one instance, when a reference librarian explained to a traditional-aged patron that a par-ticular book that interested her was an e-book, the patron shook her head and replied, “But I want a real book,” and followed her comment with hand gestures indicating the opening and closing of a book. Other students had similar reactions and requested the “real book” through interlibrary loan while the e-book (that met their information need) went unused. An informal survey of the college’s librarians about their observations and interactions with students revealed that e-books were not popular with our undergraduates. Some students seemed to view e-books, unlike the popular full-text journal articles, as hard to navigate and limit-ing despite the advantage of anywhere, anytime access. Incidental comments from students highlighted their desire for material that could either be printed in its entirety (something not always al-lowed due to copyright restrictions) or checked out and easily portable.

The College of Mount St. Joseph is a small liberal arts college located in Cincinnati, Ohio. While the school serves a diverse age range that includes adult learners, a large percentage of its students belong to the often-written-about Millennial Generation or “Net Generation.”6 Millennial students, those born after 1981, possess “the informationage mindset.”7 That is, they stand out from previous generations by having grown up in a “digitally based culture” and most likely “are more comfortable working on a keyboard than writing in a spiral notebook, and are happier reading from a computer screen than from paper in hand.”8 All Mount students, whether Millennials or Baby Boomers, are immersed in a technology-rich environment. For instance, in the year 2000, the school “became one of the first colleges in the nation to provide students with wireless computers.”9 All full-time undergraduates are required to participate in the school’s wireless laptop program, and part-time and adult students have access to computer labs, software, loaner laptops, and a plethora of online library resources. Given the technology-rich environment and generational characteristics of Millennial students, the informal anecdotal findings by the librarians about patrons’ behavior toward e-books were surprising. After all, students typically are open to new media and tech-nologies. These observations, of course, raised numerous questions that netLibrary usage data could not answer. Were our students using e-books? Did they prefer using print or electronic? Did the students’ reactions observed by the librarians reflect only a small per-centage? Additionally, how were they using e-books? The formal survey that followed sought to gain a better understanding of students’ perceptions of e-books at the College of Mount St. Joseph.

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