By Bob Nardini, Vice President, Library Services
Last year, while working for Ingram, I was invited to write a chapter for a book about ebooks and academic libraries. It’s flattering to receive an invitation like that, so, of course, I said “Yes.” I knew enough about the next step — the hard part where you actually have to write something — but I set out to make it easy. I wanted a fun writing project.
So, I started with my chapter’s title: “Platform Diving: A Day in the Life of an Academic E-book Aggregator.” The idea was to “dive” into the MyiLibrary platform for one day, which turned out to be the twenty-four hours across September 24 and 25, 2013. What I dove into was a session-by-session usage log providing the detail of every user session over twenty-four hours, 15,954 in all.
Users from 584 libraries visited the platform that day, representing thirty-nine countries and every continent where there are libraries. The session log began at 7 p.m. GMT on September 24, when a reader from Northumbria University, Newcastle upon Tyne, England, opened a book about a film entitled Documentary, looking at eight pages in a one-minute session. Twenty-four hours later the session log ended on the 25th, when an Arizona State University patron, just before noontime in the desert, spent thirty-three minutes with the book, Understanding Religion and Popular Culture.
We don’t know how the readers used whatever they gathered from the ebooks. We don’t know what kind of work they were doing, why they chose these particular books, or whether they closed their sessions feeling satisfied or unsatisfied. So much of the reading experience always has been, and remains, unknown to those who study it.
By now we have lots of studies on ebook usage, which tells us a good deal about what might be called the “macro-experience” of online reading, where all reader experiences are expressed in general patterns. But what do we know about the reading “micro-experience?” I wanted to reveal actual readers.
Of course, I didn’t know my readers’ names. But who wouldn’t sympathize with the University of Exeter students who launched forty-three sessions for a Pearson economics textbook often referred to as Giavazzi and Blanchard, a classroom staple since its first publication in 1977, revised in 2010 to include material on the recent economic collapse.
Twelve Exeter students downloaded Giavazzi and Blanchard for later reading of what was obviously an assigned text, with most downloads for exactly sixty-one pages. Exeter’s license allowed three simultaneous users, which meant that as the assignment’s due date loomed, it took some planning to get started. Sixteen readers accessed the textbook between 2 a.m. and 6 a.m. when the odds were better for actually getting into the book. A few of these sessions began, for example, at 3:07, 3:28, 3:38, 3:39, 3:44, and 3:57. Another nine sessions took place, on the part of early risers rather than night owls, between 6 a.m. and 8 a.m. “Beats buying the book!” these readers must have determined (the retail ebook price is £24.98 today, a new print copy, £52.99).
Textbook reading was one type of reader experience evident in the log. Long reading, if less common than textbook use, was another reader experience recorded there. A reader at the Universidad de Colima, for example, must have been grateful for the library ebook access which enabled a one-hour session with No Word for Welcome: The Mexican Village Faces the Global Economy.
Ebooks providing topical introductions — another type of reader experience for which ebooks are well suited — were popular, appearing throughout the session log. Books such as Advertising, or Marx, or Psychiatry, all books in the Oxford University Press Very Short Introductions series, were among the seventy-three titles present in the day’s log. Another finding, although one invisible to users, was that “free” usage — that is, pre-purchase threshold DDA reading — was uncommon.
Mine, the only contribution from an aggregator, was one of the twenty-two chapters written by librarians and publishers in Academic E-Books: Publishers, Librarians, and Users, published by Purdue University Press, edited by three Purdue librarians, and celebrated with a book-signing (by the editors) at the recent Charleston Conference.