LIS 570: External Barriers to eBook Adoption

My very first piece of academic writing since coming back to school was also my major contribution to a quarter-long group project in a research methods class. This literature review served as the jumping off point for work by three fellow MLIS students.

While the internal barriers to eBook adoption are significant, there are also several external barriers to overcome in eBook adoption. The external barriers to eBook adoption have a greater presence in the literature and seem to be centered on one main barrier with two auxiliary barriers. These barriers mostly present problems to libraries (both academic and public), the primary barrier being access at all levels: DRM and other issues related to demand and distribution, privacy protections for users that parallel the privacy of traditional book borrowing, and the ability of libraries to meet demand; outside access to eBooks themselves is the issue of accessing information inside eBooks and the difficulties surrounding the lack of indexing and ability to cite. The auxiliary problems, publishers being slow to adapt and shrinking library budgets, serve to exacerbate the access issue.

The Access Barrier

The primary barrier facing both academic and public libraries is access. The issues surround distribution and demand, privacy, lack of understanding about availability, and stresses of collection development. With these barriers to adoption often acting complimentarily, users face even greater obstacles in gaining access to eBooks

Digital Rights Management

The most studied of these access-related barriers is digital rights management (DRM), a term for multiple technologies used to ensure a secure distribution of digital content (Bechtold, 2004, p. 331). DRM relies heavily on metadata, and “[w]ith metadata, the content provider is able to control, in a very fine-grained manner, which consumers may access and use content, under what circumstances and for what purpose”(Bechtold, 2004, p. 327). One major difference between copyright and DRM is that DRM is an active protection mechanism (Bechtold, 2004, p. 329) whereas copyright is a passive one. Publishers actively policing the use of their products create a significant barrier to eBook distribution both in libraries and by eBook vendors. In 2009 DRM issues affected some digital versions of 1984 and Animal Farm purchased from Amazon for their Kindle device, causing the purchased items to be erased from users’ eReaders (Stone, 2009). Libraries have faced barriers related to DRM as well. Since digital books will not suffer from the short shelf life that paper books in a library do publishers are seeking to create limitations to the number of times a library may lend an eBook before they need to buy another copy. Some publishers don’t make their eBook titles available to libraries at all (Maier & Russell, 2012). DRM is a major external barrier to eBook adoption since there are so many different hurdles facing both libraries and booksellers. Licensing costs, circulation limitations enforced by publishers, and other copyright/DRM related issues limit libraries in a way that paper books do not, causing barriers to adoption for library patrons.


Privacy Concerns

With concerns about DRM at the forefront, one barrier to eBook adoption, user privacy, often gets overlooked. In libraries the lending of traditional books is confidential, however in the digital realm there are a myriad of ways to track your book borrowing habits and preferences. The Library Bill of Rights and the ALA Code of Ethics “…affirm librarians’ responsibility to assure library users’ privacy by keeping users’ information confidential [but] the current model of digital content delivery for libraries places library users’ privacy at risk” (Caldwell-Stone, 2012, p. 61). In many cases these are limitations created by the platforms being used to distribute eBooks (pre-established selling and borrowing avenues such as Amazon or OverDrive) and cannot be controlled by libraries or eBook users. Since it is the technology that presents the obstacle this is a particularly pertinent barrier since it affects eBook borrowers and eBook buyers equally. The easiest way for libraries to protect users’ rights as much as possible would be to commit to protecting users’ rights when entering into agreements with vendors (Caldwell-Stone, 2012) even though this is not a permanent solution to the problem nor does it help eliminate the barrier when buying eBooks.

Managing Demand

Another access related barrier is eBook demand. While demand for eBooks is growing many library patrons don’t know that eBooks are available for borrowing from libraries. A recent report by the Pew Research Center indicates that only 12% of eBook readers have borrowed an eBook from a library in the past year and 62% of the population (not necessarily eBook users) know if their library offers eBook lending (“Libraries, patrons, and e-books,” 2012). With more than three quarters of US public libraries lending eBooks a major barrier is simply spreading knowledge about availability. However, for those who have already adopted eBook borrowing the issues of compatibility and availability have been major sources of frustration. Among the population that does borrow eBooks, two thirds rank the selection of titles favorably. Despite the favorable rating half have encountered issues with unavailability of eBooks either altogether or due to holds, and nearly one fifth have found desired titles incompatible with their device (“Libraries, patrons, and e-books,” 2012). With this information in mind, the barrier of eBook demand is twofold. One, those who already use eBooks does not know about or are unsatisfied with the options presented by their local library. Two, of those who have not adopted eBooks there are many that would like to and simply need help learning about their options. These barriers are of particular interest to libraries because they are easily remedied through advertising eBook lending more widely, patron education on how to borrow eBooks, as well as how to use eReading devices. By opening new options for eBook adoption and usage libraries are creating greater interest for resources they already have.

Collection Development

One way to overcome demand-related barriers is eBook collection development. However, this potential solution brings its own barriers to eBook adoption. Most of the current literature on eBook collection development draws its examples from academic libraries, but there are many barriers to collection development that apply in both public and academic settings. A significant barrier is adapting current collection development policies and strategies to fit within the parameters presented by eBook dealers and publishers. Very few libraries have specific policies for selection, acquisition, and maintenance of eResources (Vasileiou, Rowley, & Hartley, 2012, p. 284) and “libraries without collection development policies are like businesses without business plans” (Johnson, 2009, p. 72). This lack of framework is exacerbated by two other issues highlighted in the research: supplier restrictions/lack of availability and managing user expectations when dealing with these restriction (Vasileiou et al., 2012, pp. 285–286).  While these issues are of great concern there is some literature that addresses these concerns.

A few of these matters are discussed in the demand driven acquisitions (DDA) pilot project by the Orbis Cascade Alliance. By purchasing and sharing eBooks as a consortium, smaller libraries reap the same benefits as larger institutions, helping to lower the barrier to eBook adoption caused by lack of availability (Emery, 2012, p. 133). The Orbis Cascade DDA pilot program is one of the most successful of its kind (Emery, 2012, p. 132) and libraries both public and private can learn from the experiences of this consortial eBook buying project. The system used in the DDA pilot allowed for a number of short term loans of eBooks before a purchase was triggered (Emery, 2012, p. 132). This mechanism protected the libraries of the consortium from having to buy every eBook a patron requested. This system could be implemented in public libraries with a certain number of eBooks being leased from publishers at a lesser rate and then disappearing after a set period. While some publishers are trying to enact practices like these already, they are with terms unfavorable to libraries. The topic of consortial eBook purchasing could use more attention in the literature and perhaps equilibrium between publisher-placed limitations and library preferences could be reached to facilitate overcoming this particular barrier to eBook adoption.


Complimentary Barriers

            After having addressed the primary external barriers to eBook adoption there still remain additional barriers that serve to exacerbate and compliment the primary access barrier. Difficulties with budgets have been addressed briefly above but will be discussed in greater detail in this coming section, as will publisher-imposed barriers and difficulties with navigating inside eBooks.


Tied most closely to DRM issues, publisher imposed restraints on eBooks have proven frustrating to both libraries and the eBook buying public. Issues with price fixing of eBooks has been problematic for both libraries and individual buyers (Herther, 2012, p. 17), but the greater issue for libraries is that only two (HarperCollins and Random House) of the big six publishing houses are selling their eBooks to libraries (Maier & Russell, 2012). This presents a huge barrier to eBook adoption since the big six publish many of the most popular authors. However, HarperCollins doesn’t sell eBooks to libraries without limitations: in February 2011 they announced that each eBook sold to libraries would have a cap of 26 loans (Maier & Russell, 2012). While meant to mirror the life of traditional books, the prices of eBooks are often higher than those of their paper equivalents, resulting in much greater expenditures for libraries (Maier & Russell, 2012). With DRM concerns at the forefront, “…many in the publishing industry feel their intellectual property is being handed over to an entity whose purpose is the free distribution of that content – something that scares them deeply” (Herther, 2012, p. 17). In their efforts to protect their intellectual property, interests and profit margins publishers are shoring up one of the external barriers to eBook access.

Shrinking Budgets

In conjunction with publishers charging more for eBooks, another difficulty is presented by shrinking library budgets as part of the recent economic downturn (Brynko, 2012). With budgets being stretched to their limits, “…libraries are turning their attention to the burgeoning demand for digital materials and ebooks to boost their electronic collections, while cutting back on print” (Brynko, 2012, p. 35). Since publishers are placing eBooks at a higher price point, libraries are getting less for their money despite their efforts at eBook collection development. Even if libraries do succeed at broadening their eBook offerings there are additional expenditures to consider: many library staff will need to be trained on how to access eBooks in the catalog, as well as answer patron questions about eReading devices and other issues related to the newly adopted technologies. Fifty-three percent of academic libraries and fifty-six percent of public libraries list cost of training and technology as significant barriers to eBook adoption (Thomas, 2011, p. 30). Since budget cuts are already forcing libraries to pick and choose among existing services and collections the demand for eBooks is an even greater barrier than it would be in economically flush times (Thomas, 2011, p. 30). Since libraries understand that digital technologies are the wave of the future and that eBooks are linked to the future of libraries (Brynko, 2012, p. 36) the existing literature does little to find creative ways for libraries to meet user demand for eBooks. The barrier of budgetary constraint is always one to consider when building a new collection, but has also been exacerbated by the current economic climate and publisher limitations.

eBook Navigation

Outside of all the barriers concerning eBook access and adoption lays one barrier inside eBooks: lack of indexing and standardization. The implementation challenges facing eBook indexes stem from a reader’s ability to adjust font size and type as well as line and word spacing (Meyers, 2012, p. 15). While eBooks do have search functions that alleviate some of the need for an index, Meyers points out that indexes contain concepts as well as individual terms (p. 15); since concepts can be unsearchable within the limitations of a text search the lack of indexing continues to be a barrier to eBook use. While not mentioned explicitly in this article the lack of standardization of pages in an eBook could present a barrier to collaborative reading, such as takes place in book clubs, and also when attempting to cite an electronic book as a source. Since these are barriers that a user encounters once they have already adopted eBooks it is not as pressing of a concern, although if users become sufficiently frustrated they may abandon eBooks.


The external barriers to eBook adoption are all, at various levels, related to access. Struggles with digital rights management, privacy, demand, and collection development are aggravated by publisher imposed restrictions and shrinking library budgets. The difficulties of eBook adoption facing libraries serves to complicate access for users; the hurdles facing eBook adopters once they have overcome their personal barriers is perhaps unexpected and may serve to dissuade eBook adoption.


Annotated Bibliography

Bechtold, S. (2004). Digital Rights Management in the United States and Europe. The American Journal of Comparative Law, 52(2), 323–382. doi:10.2307/4144454

In this article Bechtold provides an over-arching legal view on the ways in which digital content can be distributed and the digital tools available for the policing of digital content by the rights holders. Bechtold discusses the pros and cons of digital rights management (DRM) for both the content providers and content licensees. Bechtold goes on to discuss the importance of metadata to DRM, discussing at length the metadata and its uses in DRM and enforcement. An important point in the article is how DRM is an active protection mechanism, as opposed to the passivity of copyright and other property protections. Bechtold discusses the difficulties complexities surrounding the standardization of DRM and how rights holders and each different industry involved must be taken into account. He rightfully addresses the difficulties of to what extent a right to control access can be differentiated from the protections of copyright.

As a legal scholar Bechtold’s writing style is more straightforward that most literature seen in the library science discipline, however the information he provides is incredibly important for understanding the implications of DRM for libraries as eBooks are more widely adopted. His broad knowledge of intellectual property protections provides greater gravity to his writings on DRM and, despite being written in 2004, this article is still pertinent to barriers facing eBook adoption. Digital rights management is difficult for many industries and libraries can learn a lot from their struggles, such as the music and film industries and their troubles with file sharing sites. Bechtold’s discussion of the issues surrounding file sharing in the very first paragraph helps to draw the reader’s attention and immediately give context to the issue discussed at length in the article. This article provides insight on DRM, one of the original and still most pertinent barriers of eBook adoption.

Brynko, B. (2012). Libraries: Coping with “Digital Squeeze.” Information Today, 29(4), 1–36.

Brynko’s article discusses how libraries are adapting to shrinking budgets as the demand for eBooks rise. With the broadening adoption of eBooks libraries are forced to spread their already pinched budgets even further in order to meet the demands of patrons. Aside from budgetary constraints Brynko also highlights difficulties with publishers as a barrier to eBook adoption. One solution that Brynko provides is consortial buying of eBooks, however this option is not feasible for all libraries. Another solution that Brynko suggests is having libraries buy eReaders to have available for borrowing. One barrier that Brynko presents that limits spending on eBooks is the other technology demands on public libraries: upgrading computers, cloud computing, and other digital offerings.

Budgetary constraints are a significant barrier to eBook adoption since the slashing of library budgets has come at the same time as the rising demand for eBooks. With her timely article Brynko does a nice job highlighting the current issues, but she could spend more time discussing how libraries could do more with less in the long term since the economy is taking more time to recover than expected and many library systems are currently being supported by tax levies and other temporary funding measures.

Caldwell-Stone, D. (2012). Ebooks and Users’ Rights. American Libraries, 43(5/6), 60–61.

Deborah Caldwell-Stone demonstrates how new technologies for reading may infringe on the privacy that readers have come to expect form libraries. By highlighting the Library Bill of Rights and the ALA Code of Ethics, Caldwell-Stone shows how highly valued privacy is for librarians. Touching on topics other than privacy, the author also discusses how eBook technologies are not need-blind in the way that other library services are, another way in which eBook lending could be considered outside the library’s mission. Caldwell-Stone closes by urging libraries to be proactive in ensuring that eBooks and other digital content does not compromise the values and mission of the library.

While privacy is a compelling barrier, especially considering the importance of privacy in library policy, which is why it is surprising that they author did not spend more time discussing privacy concerns. While Caldwell-Stone does offer some tips on how librarians can help to protect their users she could have gone more in depth, since the only privacy-related tip is at the level of agreements with vendors. In general the privacy barrier seems to be under represented in the literature and Caldwell-Stone did not do much to add to the literature on the matter.

Emery, J. (2012). The Demand Driven Acquisitions Pilot Project by the Orbis Cascade Alliance: An Interview with Members of the Demand Driven Acquisitions Implementation Team. Serials Review, 38(2), 132–136. doi:10.1016/j.serrev.2012.04.008

This article is an interview conducted with the team from Orbis Cascade Alliance libraries in charge of planning and implementing a consortium-wide demand-driven acquisitions (DDA) pilot for eBooks. Questions were asked of librarians from small liberal arts colleges (Reed College and Lewis & Clark College, both of Portland, OR), a large public research university (University of Washington), and a special academic library (Oregon Health and Science University). There were also industry representatives from YBP Library Services and EBL included in the pilot and the interview, making for some interesting perspectives on the project. The interview touched on the goals of the project, how things could be improved as the pilot continues, and how other consortiums can use DDA in their systems.

The interview of both librarians and vendors provided a really interesting and useful view of how DDA can solve eBook collection development issues faced by both academic and public libraries. Since there have not been many studies of demand driven acquisitions and most of them have been failures (usually due to extremely high costs) having a program successfully piloted gives hope to demolishing the barriers to eBook adoption caused by collection development issues. Hearing the perspectives of librarians with different focuses was helpful, as was being able to see the industry’s perspective from the EBL and YBP responders. This interview was valuable in identifying ways that barriers can be overcome, something that is not very present in the literature.

Herther, N. K. (2012). Ebooks Herald the Future of 21st-Century Publishing. Searcher, 20(2), 12–54.

Nancy K. Herther, a sociology/anthropology librarian from the University of Minnesota, reflects on the relationship between libraries and publishers when it comes to eBooks. She discusses all the different types of libraries and their eBook needs, as well as the different kinds of publishers and their attitudes towards eBooks vis-à-vis libraries. While discussing the rapid growth of the eBook market, she admits that pricing and access to eBooks remains a problem for both libraries and the general public. Discussing recent court cases over eBook price fixing and publishers’ concerns over protecting their intellectual property, Herther gives concrete evidence to the publisher-imposed barrier to eBook adoption.

Herther’s article does exceptional job of considering all of the approaches to eBooks, very few to none of the other articles considered here discussed university presses and their unique mission-driven attitude in the otherwise money hungry world of publishing. She brings up good points on how, if eBooks remain as lucrative and fast growing as they have been, publishers will be forced to cooperate lest they start to lose market share and revenues. Herther mentions demand driven acquisition as a potential way for libraries to solve some of their problems, a possible solution that is gaining popularity. This article was an excellent view of publisher-imposed barriers to eBook adoption.

Maier, R. C., & Russell, C. (2012, March 30). Warning: You Are About to Enter the Ebook Zone. Retrieved October 30, 2012, from

Maier and Russell discuss publisher-imposed barriers to eBook adoption and potential solutions to this particular barrier. The authors discuss the limitations of the big six publishers and the creative ways in which libraries are attempting to circumvent them. Maier and Russell also suggest ways that libraries can minimize the costs of eBook collection development, such as rent-to-own, buying packages of books instead of individual titles, and simultaneous access for titles that are initially popular and then decline. The article also contains a worst-case scenario section, perhaps to serve as a cautionary tale to both libraries and publishers.

This article successfully gives an overview of the major points in the tumultuous publisher-library relationship. They provide many interesting options for libraries looking to avoid the common eBook acquisition frustrations, although not all of these options may be available from a large number of publishers.  One interesting point the article raises is one potential reason that publishers fear cooperation is to avoid charges of collusion, although with the price fixing cases in court it would seem that collusion isn’t something the big six publishers are afraid of.

Meyers, P. (2012). Missing Entry: Whither the eBook Index? Key Words, 20(1), 14–24.

Meyers asks why most eBooks do not have indexes and spends the remainder of the article attempting to answer the question and find a way to make indexes in eBooks feasible. He touches on how indexes contain concepts as well as words, meaning that the search function in eBooks does not eliminate the need for an index. Meyers also addresses the issues of where an index could be placed within an eBook in order to be of maximum utility to the user. Since indexes require page numbers to allow users to find content in a specific place Meyers suggests options for providing fixed page numbers despite the variable nature of eBook text. Meyers has clearly given the subject a lot of thought and this article reflects his passion for eBook indexes.

Despite well thought out arguments about the need for indexes in eBooks Meyers’ article loses credibility with the addition of hand drawn diagrams about where indexes could be placed in eBooks. The article would not have suffered from the lack of illustrations, however the author chose to include them. While this may be a problem without a good solution Meyers does voice a concern that many don’t think about, barriers that eBook users may encounter post-adoption. While this may seem outside the scope of our project the potential for users to abandon eBooks is another way to view external barriers to eBook adoption.

Thomas, L. (2011). eBooks: Access, Technology, and Licensing. Against the Grain, 23(5), 28–30.

This article addresses issues of access, technology, and licensing of eBooks for publishers, vendors, and libraries. Thomas focuses on budgetary constraints and their ability to create a barrier to eBook collection development for libraries as well as how libraries balance their priorities. The author also raises a litany of important questions to help libraries manage their eBook decisions. The options for libraries wanting to include eBooks are made clear in this article, with particular focus being given to non-profit/open access options.

Thomas does a good job of addressing the issues faced by libraries on the topic of eBook access, technology, and licensing. The strongest part of the article is where she discusses the auxiliary costs of eBook adoption: costs incurred by training staff and investing in new technologies. This aspect of costs associated with eBooks is not widely discussed in the literature and Thomas’ focus makes sure that libraries are aware of any unanticipated expenses around eBook collection development. This article could have benefitted from more length, despite tackling some important problems with no easy solutions the article was only two pages long.


Vasileiou, M., Rowley, J., & Hartley, R. (2012). The e-book management framework: The management of e-books in academic libraries and its challenges. Library & Information Science Research, 34(4), 282–291. doi:10.1016/j.lisr.2012.06.005

Vasileiou, Rowley, and Hartley tackle eBook management and collection development in academic libraries. With specific attention to vendor relationships, the authors discuss how libraries can adapt to changes associated with eBooks while maintaining strong relationships with their vendors. Their findings about libraries’ established collection development policies led in to concerns about budget and publisher restrictions. They find that the discovery of eBooks is impeded by the lack of a resource like Books in Print is for traditional books. Another difficulty they discuss is one touched upon across the literature: the management of user expectations in regards to eBook availability. The article provides a flow chart outlining the challenges in each of the eBook management stages, giving libraries an excellent idea of what to expect in all phases of eBook collection development.

This article has a rigorous methodology that the authors spend a great deal of time outlining at the beginning. This gives credibility to the findings that follow, especially their final section, recommendations for practice and further research. This article does an excellent job of drawing on the literature, giving additional support to their already very persuasive and well-written arguments. The use of tables and flow charts makes the main points of the article very clear and provides a nice take-away graphic for those hoping to implement the knowledge gained from the article.



Zickuhr, K., Rainie, L., Purcell, K., Madden, M., & Brenner, J. (2012, June 22). Libraries, patrons, and e-books. Pew Internet Libraries. Retrieved October 24, 2012, from


This article serves as an overview of the comprehensive study of the same name performed by the Pew Research Center. They discuss the findings of the study, addressing findings about current eBook users and those who have not used eBooks. As well as providing the highlights of the findings of the study, this article also addresses the methodology and details on data gathering.

The authors do an excellent job of highlighting the most important findings of the study and examining all different attitudes towards eBooks. Just like the study itself, this article maintains neutrality when discussing the findings. This strategy gives the study credibility since they are not trying to advance any agenda. Pew has a history of excellent research and this study is a strong example of this tradition. The library focus of this study, as opposed to a study about eBook use more broadly, provides excellent data for librarians hoping to better serve their patrons.



Auxiliary Sources

eBook lending: Libraries go digital – (n.d.).CNN. Retrieved October 28, 2012, from

Johnson, P. (2009). Fundamentals of collection development and management. Chicago: American Library Association.

Stone, B. (2009, July 18). Amazon Erases Orwell Books From Kindle. The New York Times. Retrieved from




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