I attended the 34th annual Charleston Conference November 5-8, where the theme, “The Importance of Being Earnest,” inspired myriad presentation titles, including the opening address, “Being Earnest in the New Normal.” Presented by Anthea Stratigos of Outsell, Inc., a firm which offers strategic marketing for libraries, the talk was rife with market-based jargon rather than the libraryland lingo that tends to lace most presentations. She urged libraries to get better at delivering our branded experience via strategic marketing (there was a passing reference to “brand halo”), and limned the current landscape of the information industry: vendors struggling with growth, talent gaps for sales and analytics, changing cost structures, and, since vendors need to bring growth to stakeholders, mergers designed to create such growth. She listed the elements that constitute the strategic marketing that libraries need to develop: have a strategy and mission (only 50% of libraries have this); build a target market map (administration, key user groups, services and offerings); complete a needs assessment (understand what users want); weed and feed a portfolio of services; and brand and market internally, delivering “wow.” Finally, she urged libraries to do the things that matter to our marketplace, establishing a portfolio that spells out what to drop or add, moneys to request, and for which targets. She urged moving one’s institution from a passive posture to a more active stance, while not getting too far ahead: the balancing act involves avoiding an innovation curve that might disenfranchise stakeholders, who have their own points of view.

Several sessions broached the issue of students’ responses to e-books, and I attended a number of these.

“How Users’ Perceptions of E-Books Have Changed – Or Not: Comparing Parallel Survey Responses” was presented by librarians from the University of Florida: Steve Carrico, Tara Cataldo, Trey Shelton, and Cecilia Botero. The group discussed surveys taken in 2009 and 2014 at the University of Florida. The surveys took the form of pop-ups on library computers, urging users to “Help us make better decisions: take our survey.” During those five years, there were slight declines in the percentages of users who had ever used e-books (77% to 76%) and those who had used e-books from the university library (66% to 56%). The caveat may be that users may not know that something is an e-book, or that it is from the library; they also had trouble distinguishing between book chapters and journal articles. Significantly, they often prefer to wait for print books via ILL for a week, rather than use e-books. Students noted problems with ease of use, reading, and the pleasure of reading. Aspects of e-books singled out as grounds for disapproval and dislike include eye strain, access problems, annotation problems, love of print (the feel of print books), dearth of titles, navigation issues (e.g. inability to flip through pages), lack of graphics, portability, DRM, poor quality, and reliance on technology. In addition, they complained of finding it hard to locate or to remember where a portion of text is situated: all e-books look and “feel” alike. Unsurprisingly, a greater amount of experience affects awareness of issues. Among the notable comments was the familiar observation, that students feel that they do not read as carefully in e-books (distractions seem to abound in that environment), and they do not focus as well. Of those not using e-books, 32% were undergraduates; so ironically, library users among whom many are digital natives do not really like e-books. As one user succinctly proclaimed, “No paper, no soul.”

“Are We There Yet? A Longitudinal Study of the Student E-Book Experience,” by Kendall Hobbs and Diane Klare of Wesleyan University, reflected the fourth year of data-gathering in what has become an annual presentation of an ongoing ethnographic study by the CTW Library Consortium (Connecticut College, Trinity College, and Wesleyan University). They found that although more students have encountered e-books, this has not translated into a preference for e-books or greater sophistication in use. However, their strong preference for print diminishes somewhat after participation in library sessions guiding them in the use of e-books. Initial interviews asked them how they use e-books, what e-books are, then to find and use an e-book, and additionally included surveys of preference for print or electronic, devices used, and gauged familiarity with searching, downloading, highlighting, annotating, and copying/pasting material. The studies found that over the years, the number of e-books used has increased, but not the degree of sophistication in using e-books and their advanced features, despite the fact that e-journals have become well integrated into students’ research strategies. 70% had used library e-books, but half of them only 1-2 times per semester. 86% prefer print for both academic and pleasure reading, and they use print and e-books in different ways: e-books for discovery (searching and skimming the text), but they prefer to have print when careful, close reading is needed for serious study. They like the physicality of print (the very thickness of books), being able to flip through the pages, and even the ability to use post-it notes (some students rank books according to the number of sticky-notes posted in them; those books with the most notes are obviously deemed the most useful). They also like to hand-write notes or outlines, feeling that this makes them more engaged with the text; it gets into their brains better than is the case with mechanically copying and pasting. They want everything at hand when writing their papers; they do not want technology to get in the way, requiring them to navigate through multiple platforms. They cited problems with finding functionality since icons are not always comprehensible. Finally, students have two goals: they want their own print copies, and they want easy access with more intuitive interfaces.

I myself find such findings to be consistent with my own experiences in BI and PRS sessions. I always go over the use of e-books, and when I ask how many students prefer e-books, at most 1-2 students raise their hands. I acknowledge the ambivalence surrounding e-books, but then emphasize that despite a generally shared preference for print, the library’s e-book program offers a troika of advantages: immediate, simultaneous access to a larger number of books than we could afford to purchase in print. I also show them how to print out selected content, including how to determine in advance (under the Details tab) how many pages the book’s publisher permits for printing or copying. It is difficult to gauge response to this information in classes, but in one-on-one encounters in PRS sessions or at the reference desk, the relief is apparent.