ALA’s eCourse on eBooks: Lessons Learned

ALA’s new eCourse on ebooks starts September 2nd. Well, it’s not exactly new. I taught this four-week course last March and have accepted ALA’s invitation to teach it again this September. On the other hand, it’s not exactly the same class either, since much has changed since I developed the original syllabus in early 2013 — so much, in fact, that the new list of required readings is quite different from the original. While this class still requires no prior knowledge of ebooks and we will again be going over the basics (e.g., formats, reading devices, dominant brands, DRM, purchasing options, etc.), we will also take a closer look at the trends that are currently driving our conversations at conferences and in various online communities.

As I prepare for the course, which starts this Monday and ends on September 27th, I am taking the time to revisit the many conversations I engaged in with the participants back in March. This helps me get a good perspective on the type of queries I will likely receive again as the course progresses. The earlier forums now remind me that some joined the class because they had had minimal exposure to ebooks and wanted to learn about them in an environment where they wouldn’t be judged for their inadequate knowledge, while others joined the class because their in-depth knowledge of ebooks somehow made it more challenging to make informed purchasing decisions.

Lessons Learned

In short: the March group was diverse (including public, K-12, academic, and special librarians), energetic, friendly, and highly motivated. Looking back, I can draw the following conclusions about what mattered to them the most:

  • They wanted to understand the technology that made ebooks possible only to the extent that it helped them do their jobs more efficiently.
  • They still cared, for the most part, about the fate of the written word more than about the technology.
  • They expressed great concern about patrons’ right to privacy when reading ebooks.
  • They relentlessly complained about the cost of subscriptions to ebook lending services.
  • They were curious to know all about hosting their own ebook platforms
  • They hesitated about the need to implement e-reader lending services at their institutions.
  • They generally perceived publishers and vendors as “for profit” institutions with little understanding of libraries, particularly school and public.

I was inspired by the fact that the voices on those lively forums came from every part of the globe, well beyond the United States, including places like Greece, Saudi Arabia, China, and Australia and that we were able to learn together about the medium via a range of materials, including academic journals, trade magazines, professional literature, various slides, and even videos on YouTube .

More information about the September class, including details about how to register, is available on the course’s site. I will “meet” you in the “Welcome” forum on Monday. Until then, I leave you with some of the comments from earlier (now archived) forums that echo some of what the participants took away from the March class.


“I still can’t tell Ebsco’s whatever it’s called, from ebrary and how they may be slightly different from some of the other platforms, but publishers and distributors I’ve got down cold (I think). I think [the world of ebook vendors] is a mess and getting more out of control.”

“Being able to tell the differences between distributors and aggregators, each with a proprietary platform or package, was less intimidating than realizing that there are so many variations to keep track of.”

“This was a lot of great information to absorb. I now feel more prepared and knowledgeable as we move forward to add and maintain an e book collection for our library. As a result of taking this class we will begin with a curriculum focus and work with a team of teachers, allowing us to promote and market to a smaller audience and grow from there. At the elementary level, I am looking forward to more interactive options becoming available. Although, I still have questions and concerns about privacy for all users -especially young users.”

“I could be a grouchy old guy and say that this course has resolved nothing for me. That, in itself, is what I am taking away from the class. Nothing is resolved. The ebook world continues to be a primordial swirl of chaos. However, the maelstrom of platforms and formats and DRM headaches is spiraling down toward an eventual semblance of calm. As I was telling a patron, just yesterday, we could actually have a functioning ebook system in place before the next semester begins. All the involved parties just have to settle on a unified plan.”

“I’ve been pondering how disconnected libraries/non-profits and business worlds appear. Many of the eBook businesses we have researched are in the business to make money/profit, build individual relationships with consumers, and dominate the market. Libraries and non-profits are not in the business to make profit. The varied charges result into a huge disconnect between the two models. I’m not sure this challenge will go away completely. What is the way to find resolution to this disconnecting?

“My favorite line from the entire course readings is from “Purchasing E-Books in Libraries” by Sue Polanka. She states, “It’s a complete labyrinth. But one day, it will be easy”, which gives me hope. Everything is challenging in its beginnings. With patience, awareness, and teamwork we will find the most effective methods to eBook solutions.”

“I wouldn’t have thought there would be any reason to weed an ebook collection because they don’t take up any space or get damaged, but the article [on weeding ebooks] brought up some good points. Too many choices make a search overwhelming, and it is not good to keep material that is no longer relevant. Then again, it’s not like the library actually owns the ebooks in its collection, but maybe someday that will change.”

“A little part of me dies every time we have to weed our physical collection. With ebooks, there is no looking at a trash bin filled with unloved tomes. The process of weeding is definitely a selling point in favor of ebooks. You just look at the usage statistics, and eliminate files that circulate too little or not at all. And yet, [a librarian touched] on a good point. They were never “our” books, to begin with. It shouldn’t be so painful to eliminate them.”

“I wish that my concerns over privacy, ownership, digital divides, and preservation could have been assuaged by all that I have learned [in this course]. Unfortunately, that certainly is not the case. But fear not. We as librarians must be determined to continue to strive for those things we know to be important – the freedom to read privately and the importance of preserving the intellectual record of our culture!”


“My prediction for the future is to have a set-up for e-books that is almost universal.  Just as we did for cataloging with OCLC and World Cat, ebooks could be accessed and dispensed on one major platform subscribed to by many, and not fragmented into many different platforms, publishers, aggregators, etc. etc. etc.”

“Caldwell-Stone’s call for slowing down the move to digital content is unlikely to gain any traction. Even in the presence of a (likely) significant security breach of user information, the demand for digital content from libraries will be impossible to ignore.”

“States with strong library user privacy rights will pursue legislation to control the collection and use of patron information. However, changing political climates that continue to encourage both “business-friendly” and “terrorism-unfriendly” legislation will mean resistance to the privacy demands of citizens.”

“There will be significant advances in user-shared development, commentary, group input, and materials sharing in ebook publishing and distribution driven by publishers of academic textbooks. We see pieces of this in CourseSmart and projects like Zola. The academic community will demand it and publishers are already responding.”

“Independent and self-publishing will grow and become a fog of poor quality materials, much like the Internet overall. This will be accompanied by the growth of self-organized groups, with elite, higher-quality publishing rising to the top in profitability and reputationthink Iowa Writersacross both broad and narrow disciplinary and interest groups.”

“This feels so self-evident as to be dumb to say, but here goes…..the technology is advancing so quickly that “getting control” of it in the sense that we’ve so often used in cataloging (developing standard procedures and formats) seems nearly impossible, so that libraries will have to become accustomed to a more fluid world.”

“I’m always bad at gambling and predicting the future, but I do believe that in the near future (three years, maximum) we will see an end to the pricing wars. I think that e-books and print books will cost roughly the same. While e-books don’t have to account for paper and binding costs, if they become truly integrated things, with sound and video material added in, then that will raise the cost.”

“If there is too much variety in the type of e readers, and e-publication styles the customer will lose interest. They want it to be easy to get what they want on the device they are currently using, they want things to work without lots of difficulties. Keep it simple and people are happy.”

“The proliferation of ebooks is not what will cause the end of libraries. That end will come when we stop dealing with books and begin marketing data services. We will cease to be librarians and start to be information technologists, specializing in digital programming. Some of us were attracted to this business because we wanted to share our love of books, not because we wanted to be computer programmers.”

“The question that haunts me is how to adapt to changes in the way we attend to our patrons’ interests. I can’t pretend to care about business models and platforms. All that matters is being able to provide students with access to the information they need, at a cost that we can justify to our administrators.”


Mirela Roncevic is an independent writer, editor and content developer recognized for spearheading a number of initiatives in the publishing and LIS field, including the coverage of digital content in Library Journal. She has also managed publications of LIS books and newsletters and developed online resources for librarians, including The Library Grants Center. At the forefront of the e-book revolution since its infancy, she managed Library Journal‘s first e-book reviews column and is a consultant for e-content producers, advising them on positioning their products in libraries while working closely with information professionals. She is the author of ALA TechSource’s 2013 Library Technology Report on e-book platforms and co-editor of ALA’s new journal, eContent Quarterly. Mirela speaks and writes on the state of publishing and digital content in the U.S. and beyond. Follow her on Twitter @MirelaRoncevic.


One thought on “ALA’s eCourse on eBooks: Lessons Learned”

  1. Sounds like an excellent course. Wish it were personally affordable, I’m no longer actively working as a librarian but in a recent project I’ve taken on would make this course an invaluable one for me.

    Keep helping my former colleagues, this information is sorely needed!


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