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Illustration of a mobile library.
Illustration by Jamie Portch

The Mobile Revolution

U of T libraries and bookstore adapt to the iPad era

Students who arrived at u of t this fall toting an iPad, iPhone or other mobile handset found that the university’s libraries and bookstore are offering several new services for them, including the ability to view course readings and e-books on their device.

Peter Clinton, director of information technology services at U of T Libraries, says students are also able to use their mobile computer to find each of the university’s 40 libraries on a map, check hours of operation and search the complete catalogue. Someone looking for Margaret Atwood’s novel Surfacing, for example, can determine which libraries have a print copy and whether a digital edition is available to read on a hand-held device.

The U of T library system provides online access to about 250,000 e-books and more than 13 million journal articles. Although the number of e-books represents only a small percentage of the library’s print holdings, Clinton expects the number to grow quickly in coming years as the market for tablet computers and smartphones explodes, and scholarly publishers shift away from printing books. “I think we’re at a tipping point,” he says.

A survey conducted last spring found that although fewer than 20 per cent of students reported using a smartphone, many expect to acquire one in the next year. “Mobile computing is becoming a major part of what students do,” says Clinton.

While the library is moving quickly to offer e-books, U of T Bookstore is taking a more gradual approach to selling digital titles. Chad Saunders, the bookstore’s manager, says the days when students download all of their textbooks to their tablet computer with the push of a button may still be some years away. Today’s students, despite having grown up in the Internet era, largely still prefer to read from the printed page, he says.

In January, the bookstore conducted a student survey and found that the majority want a print copy of a textbook, even if a digital edition is available. Given the choice between paying $50 for an e-book or $100 for a digital and print version, 30 per cent more of the respondents opted to pay extra to have both editions.

What’s more, almost 90 per cent of respondents said they would want the option of being able to print at least a portion of a digital book. To accommodate student preferences, the bookstore has teamed up with the library to offer a “print-on-demand” option for the 250,000 e-books in the library database. By clicking on an icon in the library catalogue, students are sent to the bookstore website where they can buy a copy of the book that is then printed at the store using a new “instant book” machine that can produce a paperback in four minutes.

This fall, U of T Bookstore has about 600 electronic course books and supplementary materials for sale. Saunders says demand for e-textbooks is slack so far – and publishers are in no hurry to promote them, given what happened to the music business after MP3s became popular. “There’s a lot of concern among publishers about file sharing,” observes Clinton. “Young people seem to have a different idea about the value of content and the rights of creators.”

Apple launched its iBooks store in Canada in July – and the store could be a game-changer. It wasn’t until Apple launched its iTunes store that sales of digital music took off. While textbook publishers are still negotiating with the computer-maker over terms, such as prices and Apple’s cut, Saunders has no doubt that a much broader and more accessible selection of digital textbooks is on the way. “Everyone’s searching for a good solution,” he says.

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