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Research on e-books has tended to concentrate on usage (for example, Levine-Clark 2006) and attitudes to use. Surveys of students’ attitudes to the use of e-books found that 24/7 availability, ease of storage and full-text search facility were motivators for use (Chu 2003). Difficulty in reading/browsing/annotating content, the need for special equipment, no sense of ownership (when frequent use is required over an academic year) and preference for print were found to be the main perceived barriers to use (Rowlands et al. 2007; Tenopir and Rowlands 2007). Researchers concluded that e-book content which is suitable for quick reference is used more widely (Chu 2003; Williams and Rowlands 2007) and that the subject and content of e-books influences how heavily the e-book will be used (Chu 2003). Prior experience of using e-books has also been found to positively influence acceptability and use of e-books for reference tasks. Specific issues for use were found to be navigation time relative to the time spent viewing content, perceived barriers to access which dissuade use of e-books and the need for simplicity and standardised, easy-to-use interfaces (CIBER 2008). Subsequently, there have been many more research projects and published papers which support these findings in different cultural settings around the world.

It is time to move on! There have been calls for information and library research to move towards ‘monitoring the actual online seeking behaviour of their users’ (CIBER 2008). Rowlands (2007) argued that ‘no one is watching the users’. There is a need for greater understanding of how users interact with and use library services in general and e-books in particular (JISC 2009). In a report, commissioned by the Strategic Content Alliance (SCA)* on Audience Analysis and Modelling (SCA 2008), personalisation and the importance of usability testing for user engagement and feedback are identified as key themes for the future development of library resources.

In a study of Electronic Books ON-screen Interface (the EBONI project) by Wilson, Landoni and Gibb (2002), a set of best practice guidelines was produced for the publication of electronic textbooks, reflecting the usability requirements of the UK higher education community. The main findings of the EBONI study were the need for adherence to the printed book model and presentation adjustments to facilitate ease of on-screen reading.  Our research challenges these recommendations and argues that it is the adherence to the printed book model that limits the use of academic e-books. We argue that e-book content must be re-designed to meet the study needs of the user: but we need to know what those needs are (Nicholas 2008).

Our research is specifically designed to explore the behaviour and experience of students using e-books for their academic study. We have undertaken a number of case studies which involve observing and recording e-book users doing real coursework tasks to discover their behaviour and needs. Data collection methods during e-book tasks include pre-task questionnaires, recording e-book interactions and behaviour, eye movement tracking and reflective (post-task) interviews. Our studies, collectively and with reference to observational studies conducted by other researchers, have resulted in the creation of a  typology of e-book interactions (Muir and Hawes 2013) relevant to the future design of e-books (content and features) and to library/academic instruction in the effective use of e-books (e-book literacy).

Our current PhD and Masters projects include the investigation of ‘a new paradigm for academic e-books’ and a number of case studies of e-book use: in public libraries, for online distance-learning students, for students with disabilities and specific learning needs and for ‘second chance’ students (typically mature students who do not meet standard university entrance requirements).

We hope that more researchers will contribute to the study of e-book use and behaviour and to the development of our typology (Muir and Hawes 2013). We welcome the opportunity to work with research partners to take this work forward.

Please contact Dr Laura Muir, Senior Lecturer, Department of Information Management, Aberdeen Business School, Robert Gordon University (email: l.muir@rgu.ac.uk)