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By Margaret Adolphus


An e-book is a digital version of a printed book, often accessed directly through the Internet. In some cases it is an exact replica of the print version, but with some added functionality, such as the ability to search and annotate. In others, it is enhanced with multimedia features, such as audio, video and games.

E-books have evolved dramatically since they first came on the market. There is now a wide availability of platforms which make reading e-books a more user-friendly experience. E-book readers (such as Sony's e-book reader, and the Amazon Kindle) are light and slim, and use electronic ink, which offers a reading experience similar to print. The print remains stable, and there is no backlight.

Tablet PCs (most notably the iPad, launched in the early part of 2010), offer another platform, with advantages and disadvantages over e-readers. They use LED-lit LCD displays, which makes them less readable in certain conditions, but on the other hand they are better for colour and can also carry multimedia.

E-books can also be read on laptops and some mobile phones.

E-books are published in a variety of formats, the most common being ePUB and PDF. ePUB is an open e-book standard that renders e-book content into a format that can be easily read on a mobile device. Its big advantage is that it allows the user to control the type size, an obvious benefit to someone who is visually impaired. However, this means that the page numbers are not fixed, which is a drawback when it comes to providing a precise citation.

PDF, on the other hand, will show the page exactly as it has been designed, complete with illustrations.

What do e-books offer over print?

The big advantage of e-books are scaleability, portability and ubiquity. A great number of books can be held on one device, thus saving on shelf space, particularly useful for books that you might want to read only once and not again. It also means that you can carry your library with you, which is convenient when travelling, commuting, etc.

For the librarian, the ubiquity of e-books means that they can be available 24 hours a day, 7 days a week – a great advantage when a large number of people need to access the same book. This can revolutionize the bane of the academic librarian's life, the short loan, when demand vastly exceeds the supply. With e-books, any student can access a key text, any time, anywhere.

Jill Taylor-Roe of Newcastle University Library (see "An interview with Jill Taylor-Roe"), had this to say in 2007:

"E-books have enormous potential for the academic marketplace, particularly at a time when we've got more and more students, both on and off campus, and there are more modular programmes, perhaps with 350 students on a module. A library will never have enough print textbooks to meet that demand, not least because of the way they are used, often a chapter at a time rather than the entire book."

The other advantages of e-books lie in their additional functionality, such as:

  • Their searchability – both within the book and across wider collections. This is particularly valuable with scholarly books, which offer rapid and precise searching through keywords.
  • The facility to bookmark, hyperlink and cross-refer, as well as to annotate.
  • The inclusion of multimedia or interactive objects, such as video, audio and animated graphics.
  • The ability to incorporate feedback (from the user) and make revisions without having to go to a new edition.
  • Disaggregation of content: some purchasers of scholarly books (such as Springer) allow purchase by chapter.

E-books are thus in theory more fluid, and flexible, than their print counterparts. They can contain a wider variety of media, and they can be more easily updated and refined, an advantage in rapidly moving disciplines. They no longer represent a one-dimensional contribution to knowledge which is static until another edition is brought out.

Publisher's note

This article was revised and updated in March 2011.