20 March 2012

The Cambridge Conundrum : Sherlock Holmes considers ...

"It is a capital mistake to theorize before you have all the evidence. It biases the judgment".  
Sherlock Holmes in A study in scarlet.

Following on from an earlier post, I have been thinking more about how academic librarians can make informed decisions about collection development, especially the balance between the print and electronic books.  I am becoming increasingly impatient with statements along the lines of "the book is dead" or "students want everything electronically", when they are produced as unquestionable common knowledge.  From what I can detect, undergraduate and postgraduate use of texts is far more diverse and subtle than statements like these would have us believe.  

Puzzling this over, I thought it might be a good idea to call for assistance.

Naturally Sherlock Holmes responded at once, sensing an opportunity to display his remarkable forensic skills in a prestigious academic setting.

I began by showing him the ebooks@cambridge statistics on the use of its collections in 2011.  He compared them with the 2010 data and immediately ejaculated, "Watson!  Here is a massive increase of 1,275% in the number of individual hits!  It's across all the platforms!  Look, 14.4% ebooks scored 100 or more hits, and 3% of which scored at least 1,000 hits". 

"So ebooks are really taking off then," I said. "We should stop buying print?" His brow furrowed.

"Certainly not.  Without further evidence we cannot explain a sudden rise in one year's figures.  It's only of interest if it reflects a continued trend".

"Well it does" I said.  "They went up last year, and the year before".

"Ah but note this, Watson" he said, tapping a bony finger on my computer screen, "that over half the ebooks, 63.82%, scored 10 hits or less. I thought you were buying books most in demand?"

"A lot of them were from packages" I replied, feeling a little uncomfortable.  And wishing he would stop sticking his fingers all over my screen.

"Have you any further evidence?" he asked, quizzically.

"The Judge" I answered.

"The Judge?!  Capital, Watson.  The Judge.  Who else would be more likely to produce an unbiased and reliable piece of work.  May I see it?"

I showed him Andy Priestner's slides.  He poured over them thoughtfully.  "But this Judge," he muttered, "shows that the use of ebooks went up, but fewer students were actually using them.  How very curious."

He whipped out a small violin and thoughtfully plucked at a few strings.  The sound was hideous.  As soon as I decently could, I interrupted.

"Two other colleagues have been comparing the use of print and ebooks in their libraries, Sherlock"  He sighed, laid down the violin and waved a limp hand.

I passed him a small white envelope.  As he did something with it which I cannot reveal, I showed him this post.  

"Education and English, eh?  The bedrock of civilisation.  Well, it appears from their work that the unpopularity of (or demand for) a print book cannot be ascribed to the availability of the same text as an ebook. So we should not assume that a decline in print borrowing is necessarily a consequence of the availability of e, without first considering other possible causes. Elementary, my dear Watson.  Any other evidence?"

I pointed to a group of students, sunning themselves outside in the College.

"We've just run a survey" I explained, "of postgraduates and undergraduates."

"And what did you discover, Watson?"

"They like Google Books".

Sherlock clutched his forehead.

"And there is a clear majority who say they use print and ebooks.  In fact, they say they mostly use ebooks when a print copy is not available."

"Why don't they like ebooks?"

"They don't like reading from screens.  A lot of them print stuff off".

I placed the figures in front of him, and he pounced upon the paper, rapidly scanning down the responses.

"Hmm.  It says here I love my Kindle, but I don't want to put work ebooks on it - I want to enjoy it.  I would find reading work ebooks much easier on that kind of screen, but prefer to have the computer there for easy transfer of diagrams to notes, checking with other sources, etc.  This is the work of a young woman with a lisp from Nottinghamshire whose aunt ..."

"And there's a killer question, Sherlock".

"Killer?" For the first time, a real flash of interest gleamed in his eye.  "Tell me more about this ... killer".

"I asked students: Imagine there is a key book on a reading list.The Library can buy an ebook version which will be shared online by all students. What would you advise the Library to do? (Assume all options are affordable).  53% answered that they Library should buy both, 17% said buy print and only buy an ebook if it is requested, and 15% said buy the ebook and only buy print if it is requested."


"So", I said carefully, realising that it was nearly 5.30 by now and I was due to be in a pub with some mates, "what is your overall opinion, having looked at the evidence?"

"My opinion, Watson?  What I see is an endorsement of ebooks which is measured and which is far from exclusive of print.  Your students are more traditional than it may seem.  Your ebooks, both purchased and "free" are being used more."

He paused, and looked at the spring light filtering through the trees outside the College.

"But they don't all necessarily like them, or want you to stop buying books at all.  I would advise you to stop thinking in terms of either one or the other, look at the evidence and give your readers what they want".

"But, can we afford to buy both?"

"That", he replied with an enigmatic smile, "is another question.  Excuse me.  I am wanted in London on urgent business. I can say no more, but you may hear something in the news shortly about the Iranian embassy." 


  1. Love it - I can say no more. Suggest you write a novel or two.

  2. Meant to add that a student that I helped with her Kindle the other day said she loved the % read feature on the Kindle as she used it to give her a target to aim for eg when I have got to 75% of this book I can have a cup of tea (probably a glass of wine actually)

  3. Great post!

    As suggested by Libby, you owe us a Sherlock Holmes pastiche :)

    Have you tried the Russian adaptation with Vasily Livanov as Sherlock Holmes..


  4. Excellent! Really good summary of the arguments.

  5. Brilliant post Sarah!
    Talking to Education students whilst promoting our latest ebooks survey we are finding that the majority are still saying that they prefer print - they use the ebooks when they have no other choice or in deciding whether to borrow the print. We will post the full results on the Library FYI Blog in due course.