Firstly, how do you actually spell the word ‘eBook’? Is it ebook, e-book, eBook, Ebookthe possibilities are endless? Dictionaries seem to favour ‘e-book’ whilst in the publishing marketplace ‘eBook’ is preferred. The general consensus is that the word is still evolving and it will be some time before a generally agreed upon form will emerge. So each to their own!

What is an e-book?

Quite simply an e-book (also referred to as an electronic book or a digital book) is an electronic version of a traditional print book which can be read on a computer (e.g. PC, Mac, laptop) or a variety of other electronic handheld devices such as a Smartphone (Blackberry, iPhone), an iPod, a tablet (e.g. iPad, Samsung Galaxy) or a dedicated e-book reader such as Amazon’s Kindle or W.H. Smith’s Kobo. E-books can be books originally published in a traditional way and then digitised, or they can be books written directly for the digital market so bypassing the print version altogether, as with new works by aspiring authors. E-books can consist simply of electronic text but they may also contain extras, such as audio, video or hyperlinks.

E-book formats

Unfortunately, there is no one universal e-book format.  Here in the UK the ePUB format is probably the most common of all the formats and is widely supported across all platforms. MOBI  and AZW (the Kindle’s proprietary format) are exclusive to  Amazon whilst  PDF (Adobe’s Portable Document Format) is one of the oldest and most used formats around but does not provide the best reading experience on a small handheld device being better suited to the larger screen of a PC.

E-book conversion 

As e-books are available in so many different formats,  they can sometimes prove to be incompatible with your particular e-book reader. This is when you need tools such as  Calibre  which is a free piece of software that can convert and display all the major e-book formats or Zamzar which is a free online e-book converter.

What is DRM – Digital Rights Management?

Broadly speaking, DRM has come to mean any technological measure that attempts to restrict what users can do with software or data. Its purpose is to prevent people from using copyrighted material in ways that the publisher does not want them to.   It’s not only used for e-books, but also music, film, video games and any other media that can be digitized and passed around. Typically DRM is implemented by embedding code that prevents copying, specifies a time period in which the content can be accessed or limits the number of devices the media can be installed on. This obviously is something we need to be aware of as librarians dealing with e-books. Public domain books, by the way, are always DRM free. A useful tip when buying from booksellers such as Amazon – check the product details on the book’s page. If it says “Simultaneous Device Usage: (SDU) Unlimited”, then it will be a DRM-free book. If it doesn’t say anything, then it will have DRM.

Advantages of e-books

  • Ease of access – e-books are instantly available for download
  • Economical –  e-books are often free and sometimes cheaper than the paper editions as there are no printing and delivery costs involved
  • Portable and space-saving – a great number of books can be carried on one device
  • Interactive – depending on the device the e-book is loaded on to, readers can take notes, underline, bookmark pages, search and gain extra information through hyperlinks; useful when accessing academic books as well as bestsellers
  • Motivate  – research has shown that for reluctant readers and boys in particular e-books  can have a positive impact on reading attitude and progress
  • Personal – technology can offer pupils increased reading opportunities and help those who have dyslexia and other reading problems— by for example giving them the option of increasing the font size of the text or the back-lighting
  • Private – no-one can see what you are reading –  a great feature for reluctant readers particularly if they are reading something that could be considered too young for their age
  • Multimedia – e-books offer features such as hyperlinks, audio/video extensions, still/animated images etc.  that greatly enhance the reading experience particularly for reluctant readers
  • Environmentally friendly – paper-free books save trees


These are a number of issues librarians face when it comes to using e-books in schools.

  • User resistance – pupils still feel reading from a computer screen lacks the familiarity and comfort of reading from a book.
  • Costs – many e-books cost as much or more than physical books especially those that our heavily illustrated such as picture books and graphic novels
  • Use can be restricted – librarians cannot assume that like print books, e-books can be loaned indefinitely. For example, HarperCollins has a 26-checkout limit on many of their e-books. Sharing e-books can also be a problem. Usually one e-book purchase can be downloaded to 6 different devices. But with the Kindle and the Nook for example, this means that those devices then “own” the books and they cannot be pulled back into the archive and assigned to any other device.

Integrating e-books into your school library’s acquisition and circulation system 

Circulating e-book readers with the e-books already pre-loaded is one solution, and perhaps the cheaper option, but there are problems associated with this which are discussed in full under the section on this website entitled “Use of e-readers in school libraries“. The easier option seems to be for school libraries to acquire the e-books but let users download them to their own devices. This can be done by subscribing to an e-book library service. Users access the collection via the internet and librarians purchase a selection of e-book titles just as they would  print titles but usually also pay a service fee. There are several providers of e-book platforms to schools and they are all basically good products but differ in the facilities they provide

Subscription e-book platforms: will not only supply the e-books but will also manage their administration on your library’s behalf. The drawback to these schemes is that they are expensive and the books are leased, never owned by the library so if you withdraw from the scheme at any time all the books will be lost! Examples of such schemes are

  • Overdrive  – also used by many public library services across the UK, this is one of the most expensive e-book platforms around but it has the widest range and most amount of books available to choose from than any other provider with new publishers coming on board all the time. Overdrive offers books, audiobooks and streaming videos. All items are strictly one person one borrower so you would need to buy multiple copies of popular books. Here an annual fee is charged on a sliding scale  depending on the number of pupils in the school . The school receives credit to the value of 50% of this fee for buying books. OverDrive will build your own customised website and there is the facility to restrict books to certain ages.  Choosing books and downloading them to the website is very simple and there are helpful on-call specialists who will also put baskets together for you, from which you can select what you want to buy. One downside is that because the site is American based books are not available immediately – they can take up to 24 hours to appear. From the users point of view though borrowing books is quick  and easy. OverDrive also supports all leading devices and operating systems apart from the  Amazon Kindle.
  • e-Platform was launched in June 2012 by Peters Bookselling Service, the UK’s largest children’s library specialists and Wheelers Books, the largest library and school supplier in New Zealand. Peters ePlatform is one of the cheapest platforms around. There is a small set-up charge which includes hosting with your own logo, patron authentication and support; apart from the expense of purchasing the actual books the only on-going cost is a small  DRM fee which is charged per book. Starter collections are available and like Overdrive, items are strictly one person one borrower.  There is now a UK representative which makes life easier – before all communications with the company went via New Zealand –  and she is very happy to visit schools and run user groups and demos.
  • VLE Books another e-book platform which was launched in  2012 by Browns Books for Students.  If you already use Browns as your bookseller, ordering e-books could not be easier! The books also appear instantaneously – there is no delay. This system is one where some (but not all) titles can be purchased with multiple user access, either by using a credit system or multiple user licences.  1 credit = 1 student using that book for 24 hours. This means that any number of people can use a book at any one time, and with credits being available at 200-400 a book that is a lot of log-ins before the credit on your book ‘runs out’. Reports tell you if a book is running low on credits so you can purchase more. Every user has  a log in to this  system and users can highlight and make notes in their e-books which only they can see. The main disadvantage of this system however is that it currently cannot be integrated into any one of the library management systems. This means you  have to catalogue an e-book as you would a physical book but then a link takes pupils through to the VLE book platform where they then log in and look for it. It does not go straight through to the book or open it as happens with other systems. On the whole Browns is more suitable for Senior Schools, particularly as it has an excellent Sixth Form non-fiction section
  • RM Books who used to offer a system of e-book rentals, particularly useful for school set books and textbooks went out of business in July 2018. Alternative arrangements were put in place by the company and RM Books users have now transferred to Browns Books  for Students VLE Books


Recommended reading

No Shelf Required: E-Books in Libraries by Sue Polanka,  ALA Editions, 9780838910542

No Shelf Required 2: Use and Management of Electronic Books by Sue Polanka,   ALA Editions,  9780838911457

(Last updated by Denise Reed on  21 August, 2018)

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