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What are the pros and cons of an eBook first policy for our students?

Jo Lapham
Jo Lapham

My name is Jo and I am the Further Education rep for the ILG. The college in which I work is in the process of opening a new location at a far-off site. The beauty of this for me is that I get to buy the books for the new library space. The problem is that we may not have a full-time member of the team on site for a while. This made me think about the possibility of relying more heavily on eBooks for this venture. So why not have the area fully digital? Do we need physical books for our students?

Whilst Lewis (2019) declares that legacy print collections need to be ‘retired’ and replaced by digital content, there is comfort in the familiarity of print books and the library shelves surrounding the study area (Casselden & Pears, 2020); the library exists for its users, and their needs and preferences need to be taken into consideration in collection development policies. Likewise, we, the librarians, need to decide whether the affordances of the digital book outweighs the cost of licences and possible problems with accessibility that may arise.

Let’s first look at the affordances of eBooks. In what way could they be said to be better than their physical siblings? Thinking about my college for a start, we are located across the length of Cornwall. That’s a good 50 miles or more travel time from the Penzance to Bodmin campuses. If someone in Bodmin needs a book housed in Penzance, they are unlikely to get it that day, possibly not that week. Were we to own the digital copy, with the right type of licence, access would be instant. Similarly, we have many students who rarely access the college site and find fitting in a library visit difficult. They may be on an apprenticeship course or be studying evenings, after the library is closed. For these students, eBooks are a lifeline. Furthermore, the shift to eBooks gives us the choice to choose a demand-driven access model, whereby the books are catalogued but not owned until actually accessed by the students. This way we may save the many hundreds of pounds we have wasted in the past buying books that were never opened. Additionally, in a library that is often left unstaffed, eBooks can’t be stolen, won’t sit under someone’s bed all year and can’t end up damp and sandy from that lovely beach trip.

For anyone with a reading disability, the affordances are obvious. eBooks can be adapted with different fonts, screen backgrounds, shades, and colour rulers. They can often be read aloud either through in-built software or through the software on your phone or computer. Conversely, Cavalli et al. (2019) found some dyslexic students performed better using print books as they take cues from the world around them that do not exist on the screen. Keyword searching is a favourite tool in eBooks, and one I find attracts the students. Likewise, the ability to add virtual post-it notes and highlights. However, these are skills that really need to be taught to the students to make them really worthwhile, as these tools aren’t always obvious.

There are some obvious drawbacks to an online library. For example, how many times have you stumbled across gems on the library shelves whilst searching for another title? The digital-only student is far less likely to stumble across books by accident. Their search is more linear and less of a discovery treasure trove. Then we have the problem of the digital divide. Many students lack the facilities to access eBooks from home. This became clear during the pandemic, when schools and colleges became aware that many of their students were trying to access online lessons from a phone, or a PC, shared by all members of the family. There may also be poor internet access, especially in rural areas. And whilst some formats of eBook are flexible enough to read on a small screen, others, such as PDFs are near impossible to access successfully on a phone screen.

With many Further Education titles, eBooks are simply not an affordable option for most institutions. A-level textbooks, for example, are often paid for as a yearly licence, with costs reaching far above those of the physical copy, even allowing for lost and stolen textbooks. But then I see the Graduate Level books telling me to inquire about pricing. I know from this that there is little point in looking at these for our college. They are certainly going to be way beyond our means. My ideal option, if we had the finances to do so, would be to own a physical and online copy of every book in the library. As we don’t have bottomless pockets, I still sit here trying to weigh up the best option for every book I need to purchase. What are your preferences? Do you still prefer to hold paper in your hands or are you an online convert?


Casselden, B., & Pears, R. (2020). Higher education student pathways to ebook usage and engagement, and understanding: Highways and cul de sacs. Journal of Librarianship and Information Science, 52(2), 601–619.

Cavalli, E., Colé, P., Brèthes, H., Lefevre, E., Lascombe, S., & Velay, J. L. (2019). E-book reading hinders aspects of long-text comprehension for adults with dyslexia. Annals of Dyslexia, 69(2), 243–259.

Lewis, D. W. (2019). Reimagining the academic library: What to do next. Review article. Profesional de La Informacion, 28(1), 1–29.

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