Virtual Reference and E-Books

I attended sessions that offered the latest information on virtual reference and e-books.

AskON is the Knowledge Ontario offering that some public libraries have adopted to provide online chat reference. Libraries using AskON form a pool of responders to reference questions. Each library has to offer a set number of hours for staff to respond to reference questions. Reference questions that are specific to a library are forwarded to that library.

The software also supports Voice over IP (VOIP), but that is not enabled at this point.

The presenters described the training process, and reported that staff quickly became comfortable with the chat software.

In a separate session, the University of Toronto Libraries presented their latest findings on e-books. While electronic journal databases have become very popular, e-books have been slower to take off. Many users find reading long form texts on a computer screen difficult. What I found most surprising is the lack of formal published research on e-book usage. University of Toronto has analyzed the usage of its e-book collection for a number of years, and some conclusions can be made. Students still prefer print books, even if e-books cost less.

From the presentation slides, these are the reasons students like print books:

Ultimate usability
Easy to browse & scan
High quality artwork
Can bookmark, visually return
Mark-up, Inscribed
Durable & persistent
Can be loaned & returned
Meaningful identity on shelf
Social identity marker
Beauty of the package & cover
Feel of the book & paper
Sensual attributes – smell & feel

E-books are being used for some information purposes, particularly if they come up in a subject search, and if the e-book is up-to-date. Students like the idea of downloading an e-book, saving it for later, and then reading parts of it. E-books are being used for finding information, and not so much reading.

What may help in increasing the use of e-books is making them more findable in the library’s discovery tools. The conveniences of previewing, searching, and downloading are important. PDF-style pages (especially if forced to show one page at a time) are not conducive to reading on a computer screen. Portable readers, like the Sony Reader, may result in greater usage of e-books. But print books seem to have a long future ahead of them, with perhaps more innovation such as print-on-demand becoming more common.

Nicholas Carr’s article in Atlantic Monthly, "Is Google Making Us Stupid?" was mentioned (as it was at a number of other sessions). Online reading reinforces skimming and reading in snippets to the point where people are becoming impatient and easily distracted if they have to read long-form books. The presenters pointed out that students and faculty are drawn to print books because they do foster deep reading much better than e-books. There is no evidence though that Google is making scholars comprehend less, according to the presenters. Google does increase access to information (sometimes to the point of overload). The challenge for libraries is in making sure that the right format meets user expectations and behaviours.

The University of Toronto Libraries presentation is at

As a follow-up to this session, I came across this article from Time magazine, "The Race for a Better Read":,8599,1877161-2,00.html?iid=perma_share.

Reading newspaper and magazine articles online has cut into the revenues of old media. One solution described in this article is "appgazines". People will pay if the experience of reading electronically surpasses that of reading traditional print. One way to do that is to package reading material as applications. (Red)Wire is a music magazine that’s delivered as an Adobe AIR application. The cost is $5/month, with half of that amount going to charity.

Another strategy that might appear in the future is media companies giving away e-reader devices as part of subscriptions. Amazon and Sony are updating their e-readers, and a flexible, tough 8.5 X 11 inch reader from Plastic Logic might be on the market in 2010.

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