Ebooks: to subscribe, or not to subscribe?

By Martin Gray

Teacher librarian at Singleton High School, Martin Gray, weighs the arguments for and against ebooks in schools.

A person using an e-book

I have an iPad, and it has books on it. I read them on the train from time to time. Our school library has some paid ebooks where I think they are worth it, and lots of free ebooks. But when I am asked why I have not subscribed to an ebook platform for my school, I have several reasons why I am not keen to do so ... yet.

I think ebooks are wonderful, and a lot of people like them, but they have not reached tipping point for being the best option in our school library. Personally, I think the benefits of early adoption do not outweigh the disadvantages.

Platform wars

If I want to watch House of Cards, it’s only on Netflix. I want to Watch Ash vs Evil Dead, but that’s only on Stan. In short, I can’t get everything I want from the one place; and ebooks are the same. Not all publishers are on the one platform. Some platforms only really have fiction. For example, if I want fiction I may have to use one platform, but need to use another for non-fiction. Subscribing to one service may be cost-effective, but to two or three?

What’s more, if I want to change platform, I lose everything I have from the original. Not like paper, where if I get sick of Supplier X, I can keep the books after I move to Supplier Y. And even if I could keep the file, the file type may not be compatible with another device or service.


Several studies have found that a student’s ability to recall information read from a screen is lower than that from information read from paper. This may have something to do with the way paper is more tactile, which triggers better memory (Mangen 2013), but it still means books can be more effective for students to study from.


Several studies have found that for most people, there is deeper comprehension and understanding from print. This trend is across all age groups. Schuger & Schugar (2014) suggest this may be due to distractions available on digital devices, and Tanner (2014) suggests it may be due to dry eye from looking at a screen. Personally, I think the association of computers with entertainment further discourages focus. Either way, most students understand more clearly using print books.

Equity: learning styles

Quality teaching demands that we differentiate to meet student needs. A large number of students work best with printed material, therefore, to be fair, we need to provide them with books. It is also essential that students who wish to go to university still use books, as most universities still have books in their collection or for textbooks. This varies from faculty to faculty; some subjects are better suited to ebooks than others (Wexelbaum 2011).

Equity: costs

For a digital collection to work, a school needs to assume that students have a suitable device and ready access to the internet. This is not always the case, especially in a school with a high proportion of students from a low socioeconomic background. ABS data (2016) show that 14 per cent of all households do not have the internet. For many students the only device they have is a phone —maybe acceptable for a fiction book or Wikipedia, but not for in-depth research, for which a larger screen with epaper is best (Tanner 2014). Even if there is a suitable device, we can’t assume that the student is the only person using it. During the days of the digital revolution and free laptops, we could presume that students were able to download at school and then access their own device at home, but not anymore.

Myth: everything is online

The belief that everything is available online is somewhat true, and somewhat not. To start with, there are some things that you cannot get online, or at least not easily, especially in local studies or new release. Myth busted there.

The other side of this is that everything is available online. However, it may or may not be fact-checked, it may or may not be biased. The website you need may be surrounded by similar websites set up by hate groups, amateur academic hacks, or spam. Everything in a library has to be checked by a professional publisher and then selected by a trained librarian. Even if you do find good information on the net, it may be behind a paywall.

The kids don’t want it

Well, some do, but a lot don’t. Anecdotal evidence from a lot of school librarians I have spoken to has been that, given the option of ebook or print, kids choose paper. Even my town library says their ebook stats are underwhelming. I did a survey of 10 per cent of my school students and the results were, at best, inconclusive.

Books are expected

Whenever I have visiting performers or lecturers come into our book-filled school library, they tell me how relieved they are to see a real library. Libraries have an effect on people. This in itself does not rule out digital books, though it is still a reason to keep paper books.

But . . .

Despite all this, I am not anti-ebook. The lack of storage space for physical books and the ability to have ebooks on a multipurpose device mean I am often reading on my phone happily in a physician’s office. There are several reasons why sooner rather than later I will pay for ebooks.


Just as most students prefer paper, and will even print out an article from online, some students prefer or do better with digital. Fair allocation of resources and differentiation mean we need something for them. I personally expect that in the future students may become better at retaining information learnt online.

Sometimes ebooks are better. It could be that a student needs to make text bigger due to sight issues; it could be easier for essay writing, copying and pasting any quotes. It could just be more interesting: we have arrived at an age where the better and more expensive online textbooks have built-in quizzes with instant feedback, which is far more engaging.

Cost and space

Eventually I think the cost and choice of ebooks will improve, and with better value and ease of use, they will be more practical. Especially in terms of using less space and taking less time for library staff to process.

It’s expected

A good library is expected to have ebooks. They are now mainstream, making up 20 per cent of all book sales in the USA. But as ebooks become better value, and ereaders better mimic, or in some cases add to, the experience of paper, this will only increase. And with more people buying ebooks and owning devices, more will also borrow.

In conclusion

The minute ebooks pass the best option tipping point, I will jump on board. I constantly wait to see if there are more locally relevant non-fiction texts rather than just American or British choices. I watch the fiction platforms for ways to have the same book borrowed by more than one person at a time without paying a premium. I know how much some platforms charge and how that would fit in our budget. If our school library budget was magically increased by 25 per cent, I would be making calls tomorrow.

Until then, I have links to Project Gutenberg in my library, and I have a partnership with my town library to have all our students join and use their ebooks, audiobooks and databases. Free books are definitely worth it. For now, ebooks are a question, not of if, but of when.


Further reading

Martin Gray

Martin Gray

Teacher librarian

Singleton High School

Martin Gray is a Google-certified teacher with 20 years of experience in education worldwide. Martin is a Premier’s Reading Challenge reviewer, a Teach for NSW ambassador, and the teacher librarian at Singleton High School in Hunter Valley, NSW.