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Study: Assessing the Value of E-Books to Academic Libraries and Users

Purpose statement:  
This project examined the value of e-books to library users as well as the value of e-books to libraries.

Establish a benchmark for e-book value; determine the cost/use ratio of ebooks at the UIUC library and verify if the cost-per-use of UIUC e-books matches the “value” that UIUC e-book users assigned when surveyed in an Elsevier e-book study.

Paula Kaufman, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign
Tina Chrzastowski, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign
Lynn Wiley, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign


Quantitative Methodology (E-book Use at UIUC):
E-book use data were collected by using COUNTER statistics provided by e-book publishers.  For the purpose of this study, a "use" of an e-book was counted when a user successfully viewed or downloaded a section (generally by chapter) of an e-book through the vendor's portal.  This definition of use follows COUNTER Book Report 2 (Number of Successful Section Requests by Month and Title) for most vendors.  Of the vendors for which we could get information, 75% used COUNTER-compliant statistics; however, only 82% (33 of 40) of e-book publishers were able to provide use data, resulting in an undercounting of e-book use.

Qualitative Methodology (Elsevier Survey of UIUC E-book Users):
After an initial questionnaire which established users’ familiarity with and previous use of e-books, participants were asked to conduct one of their normal searches for information in their discipline on the Elsevier e-book platform.  Following each search, and after reading some portion of an Elsevier e-book, a logbook diary entry was completed for each e-book interaction.  The study asked researchers to fill out logbook diaries for up to four Elsevier e-books, and participants were given up to four weeks to complete the diaries.  After their last logbook diary was completed, a final questionnaire was administered.  Three questions concerning value were posed; researchers were asked to rank the value of each e-book used on a 1-10 scale, they were asked to categorize each e-book viewed on a scale from “could have done without” to “need to have,” and finally they were asked to rank value on a seven-point scale, from “extremely valuable” to “not at all valuable.”

Key variables of interest:
Longitudinal use of e-books at UIUC; Longitudinal cost-per-use of e-books at UIUC; Rankings of e-book value to UIUC users.

Basic cost/use calculations were used for the value of e-books to libraries.  These included cost-per-year divided by use-per-year; annual cost-per-ebook was calculated by taking the annual cost of e-books to the library and dividing that number by the number of e-books purchased that year.  This number will vary considerably per year as e-books are often purchased in bulk at the year’s end and reflect the fluctuations in publisher discounts and numbers of e-books available in each package each year.

The calculator for the Elsevier e-book study (which measured the value of e-books to users) is qualitative and used a gradated scale from 1-10 for users to choose the level of value they assigned to each e-book they used/read.

Another important calculator is the previous work done by Courant and Nielsen (p. 101).* Their research shows that there are long- and short-term savings to be had by purchasing e-books rather than p-books, and that in comparing formats, many additional savings occur when selecting an electronic format over print format.

This study may apply to other large academic libraries that have collected and analyzed local e-book use and cost data, or those who plan to do so.
Utility in this study may come from the data showing e-book use and cost-per-use at the UIUC library.  Comparative data in this area are not readily available.  Another utility is the positive outcome of e-book users’ valuation of ebooks. These data may provide confidence to collection managers to proceed with less caution when deciding between e-book and p-book formats.

This study was only conducted at UIUC; not used or tested elsewhere.

Local use and cost/use data have been shared with UIUC collection managers; the impact might be evident in the FY2012 e-book cost/use data which may show increased numbers in both e-books purchased and use of all UIUC-licensed e-books.

ROI Protocol for Focus Groups and Logbook Study (Students)
ROI Protocol for Interviews and Logbook Study (Researchers)
ROI Protocol for Interviews and Logbook Study (University Teachers)

*Courant, Paul N. and Matthew “Buzzy” Nielsen.  “On the Cost of Keeping a Book.”  In: The Idea of Order: Transforming Research Collections for 21st Century Scholarship.  Council     on Library and Information Resources (CLIR), Washington, D.C.  Accessed online at: