eReading for Research

by Michelle Armstrong

Data on ebooks is beginning to show that this format is transforming the library world. More and more libraries are developing ebook collections and patrons are learning to expect this format as an option. Much of this success is the result of devices like the Kindle and iPad which mimic a much more natural reading experience, at least in the traditional sense. Reading a novel or any text straight through works well on these devices. However, not every type of reader interacts with a book like this and in fact many academic faculty and researchers need more freedom to read in ways that support their individual research practices.

photo by Giles Lane

Unlike reading a novel which tends to be a relatively passive activity, moving from page to page in a linear manner, researchers tend to interact with books in a more in depth way, often practicing active reading in order to more deeply understand the text. Active reading is a combination of reading and analysis, often using techniques to emphasize parts of a text. As early as 1946 Mortimer J. Adler talked about active reading and encouraged individuals to mark up their books through:

  1. Underlining
  2. Vertical lines at the margin
  3. Star, asterisk, or other doo-dad at the margin
  4. Numbers in the margin
  5. Numbers of other pages in the margin
  6. Circling of key words or phrases
  7. Writing in the margin, or at the top or bottom of the page

These techniques enabled readers to more deeply interact with and understand the text, drawing attention to key points. Decades later, readers are still using these strategies, especially in university settings. However now, students and faculty also use highlighters, post-it notes, flags, paper clips and a variety of other tools that are easily available at office supply stores.

I am no exception and often mark up my books and papers. I know that I comprehend content more thoroughly when I work through the pages, marking them as I go. I like to use a couple of techniques including:

  • Placing brackets around important paragraphs or sections
  • Underlining key sentences
  • Circling words that I need to look up
  • Scribbling questions and comments in reaction to what I am reading either between the lines or in the margins.

I’ve also picked up the habit of jotting down a list of “To Do’s” some where on the book or paper. Groceries, pending emails, or other distractions are quickly recorded and forgotten so I can get back to what I’m reading. No one ever taught me these techniques. I just began using them because they worked and now that’s how I tend to work through a book or paper. If the miscellaneous highlighters, post-it notes, and occasional textbook found around our library are any indication, many of our patrons use similar techniques as well.

I began thinking about how I read, particularly non-fiction, this past spring when I was provided an iPad to use for work. Our library has been making a concerted to enable employees to utilize mobile technology when providing services to our patrons. The importance of having these skills was reinforced this summer as the library launched two new ebook platforms, EBL and Overdrive.

I had heard mixed reviews about reading on an ereader, but I knew it was important to be able to successfully work with the technology. I actually found reading a novel on the iPad to be a great experience. Backlighting so I could read in the dark. Reflowable text that I could enlarge whenever I took off my glasses. Multiple books in a light weight device that I could slip in my bag. Instant access to books. It was great.

Despite my pleasure at being able to catch up on some summer novels, I discovered that reading non-fiction was a different matter. My typical marking techniques had to be adjusted or weren’t possible in this new environment. One of the professors I work with who tried an EBL books also noted similar issues, stating he wasn’t certain how effective an ebook would be for “serious research”.

Since receiving that feedback, Ive been exploring ereader options which support active reading. Looking at features on five ereaders: iBooks, Kindle, OverDrive, Bluefire Reader, and Nook, I found that there were some common tools on each of these applications which would be useful to researchers


Highlighting gives the reader a way to draw their attention to a specific section of text. It creates emphasis and designates a phrase or passage as important. Ebook highlighting is limited though as it only provides one type or level of emphasis. Highlighting and adding emphasis in a print book can take many forms as I noted in my own active reading techniques.

With the exception of Overdrive, each ereader reviewed provides a highlighting option. The methods of adding highlights varies and some ereaders will only highlight a passage when a note is added. Unlike print books, ereaders allow you to remove highlights. Additionally, highlights can be skimmed usually through some kind of list feature. Only iBooks lets the reader change the highlights from the standard yellow to one of four other color options. For all ereaders, there was no way of adding other types of emphasis, such as underlining, astricks, or other marks on the text


Having the ability to annotate a book is an important feature. It gives the reader an opportunity to critically analyze the content and relate the concepts to their own ideas.

Again, notetaking was available on all ereaders except Overdrive. (Note: With the availability of Kindle ebooks through the Overdrive platform, readers can now add notes to those books via their Kindle app.) Although all ereaders with notetaking options allowed users to edit and copy their notes to another app or tool, the presentation and access to those noted varied. Some readers, such as iBooks and Kindle, provided a visual indication through small note icons that a comment had been added to a section of text. Both Bluefire and Nook did not provide any kind of icon, but the associated section of text was highlight when a note was added. Each ereader allowed you to skim through and navigate to the notes through a list feature found in the table of contents area. None of the ereaders allowed batch exporting of notes and when a single note was copied and added to an external document, no citation information was transferred.


In an ebook environment, bookmarking can serve as a wayfinding device, but it can also add emphasis to a section of the book. However, unlike a post-it or flag which allows the reader to specify the specific point in a page where they are stopping or should look again, bookmarks in ebooks are limited to a single page as a whole.

Every ebook provided a bookmark feature, always in the upper right corner. Except for the Bluefire Reader, adding and removing a bookmark was a simple process of tapping the bookmark icon. In the case of Bluefire, readers had to bring up the basic ebook toolbars, touch the bookmark icon which then brings up a notes box. You can add a note or simply select save which then creates a bookmark. Although this method does allow you to add a bookmark, it is much more intensive process in comparison to the other ereaders. In every situation, readers could view, via the table of contents option, a list of bookmarks and navigate to a specific point in the book. Each ereader also allowed users to add multiple bookmarks which where associated not with a specific section of text, but with the page as a whole.

Navigating and Searching

When researching, being able to move back and forth between different sections, referencing previous content, is critical. Although ebooks try to simulate the page turning experience, other devices have been developed to assist researcher in being able to jump back and forth between sections.

In addition to “turning the page”, all five readers provided access to a table of contents and had a slider tool which allowed readers to quickly move to a specific point in the book. When bookmarks, highlights, and notes were added, these also became tools for navigation, usually through a list found in the table of contents option. Depending on the format of the book, some books also contained internal hyperlinking.

With the exception of Overdrive, the ereaders also provided access to a search tool on every page. iBooks, Kindle, and Nook all have the option of search on a term by highlighting, as well as looking the term up in a built in dictionary, as well as in Google and Wikipedia.

There’s no doubt reading a non-fiction book in an ereader is a very different kind of experience. Some of the tools and features work well, while others need further development to be of real value to researchers. Every ereader is unique and those variations can cause researchers to shift their active reading strategies from application to application. Instead of being able to pick up a book and start working, they have to orient themselves to the specific tool being used. Highlighting and note taking options work fairly well, but they are not able to replicate the experience of spontaneously writing in the margins and being able to see your comments right next to the text. Searching within a book, however, illustrates some of the greatest potential for using ebooks for research. Being able to quickly find a specific word or phrase, as well as all the corresponding references to the term, is amazingly efficient.

The growth in popularity of ebooks clearly indicates how far the ereading experience has come. There is a tremendous amount of potential for ebooks to support researchers and some of the features described in this column are already doing that. As libraries continue to develop ebook services, librarians should advocate for tools which allow patrons to interact with these items in the way that best meets their reading needs.

Michelle Armstrong is a librarian at Boise State University. She manages ScholarWorks, Boise State’s institutional repository and serves as a liaison to the Mathematics Department and Graduate College.


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