University librarians are frustrated by the poor availability and high cost of electronic textbooks, despite growing demand from students and academic staff, the biggest-ever study of e-books has found.
So far, publishers have held back from releasing e-textbooks amid uncertainty about their impact on the market for printed texts, but the findings of the two-year study suggest that making more e-books available would not affect sales.
As part of the UK national e-book observatory project, run by the Joint Information Systems Committee, electronic versions of 36 textbooks were made available to 1 universities and colleges for a year. In that time, 46,000 visits were made and more than 761,000 pages were viewed. More than 50,000 university staff and students were surveyed.
Researchers found that the exercise had "no conclusive negative impact" on the sale of printed texts. Instead, e-books were used for "grazing" information rather than for continuous reading, meaning hard copies and e-books are complementary.
The nervousness of publishers is understandable: student sales account for 70 per cent to 90 per cent of publishers' revenues when it comes to textbooks.
Hazel Woodward, librarian at Cranfield University and chair of the e-book project advisory board, said: "As far as scholarly journals are concerned, if it is not online, it doesn't exist. But librarians were getting frustrated because they weren't able to get the e-books and e-textbooks they required: publishers weren't making them available."
University librarians are hoping the results will give publishers the confidence to release more e-books.
Nearly a quarter of students report being "dissatisfied" or "very dissatisfied" with library provision, and student spending on textbooks is falling: figures from the former Department for Innovation, Universities and Skills show that student spending on course-related books fell by nearly one fifth between 2004-05 and 2007-08.
"With growing student numbers and more part-time and distance-learning students, it is becoming increasingly difficult for university libraries to provide the books they need on their courses. We think e-books could be the answer," Dr Woodward said.
The study, "UK National E-book Observatory: Key Findings and Recommendations", suggests that e-books could offer a valuable back-up for hard-pressed short-loan collections, allowing a "safety valve" at peak times.
Available anywhere and at any time, e-books were valued for their convenience and searchability. Analysis of user behaviour showed that almost one third of pages viewed were looked at off-campus and at all hours of the day. The study also found that library users were "hungry for digital content".
Meanwhile, librarians found the business models for course text-books were "often inappropriate" and their prices "too high".
Dr Woodward said: "What the research seems to indicate is that there is going to be a continued demand for us to provide printed texts - at least for the short to medium term - but also to supplement printed copies with online access.
"Hopefully, the message to the publishers is that if you can make these things available, there is a huge library marketplace out there."
She also stressed the practical value of e-books: "They don't get stolen, they don't get their pages ripped out and they are always available when people want them."