Three Tips for Using Ebrary E-Books

I recently started using more of Swem Library’s electronic books available via ebrary. Before this week, when I’d seen that a book was only available electronically, I rolled my eyes and would ILL a copy. I just didn’t want to have to read the book on my computer screen.  Fast forward to this week.  I need some books, and I’m away from Williamsburg and Swem.  I found myself in the ebrary system, looking at a book I needed for my dissertation.  Out of necessity, I started using this electronic copy of the book and pleasantly surprised. Here are three tips I learned about getting the most out of Swem’s ebrary subscription.

0. Finding Ebrary Books

This is really more of a non-tip, but important: how to find ebrary, especially if you’re off-campus. Ebrary is like any other W&M database or journal subscription. If you’re on campus on W&M’s wireless network you can automatically get into ebrary via a link on a book’s catalog page or searching the databases (or you can click here), but if you aren’t, you have to use your W&M credentials and authenticate by proxy. Once you’re in, if you’ve gone via a specific book, your browser will open to that book, and if you’ve used the general database link, it brings you to a search box on ebrary’s website.

1. Create a User Account

Here's what my ebrary bookshelf looks like -- note the list of books and the list of links to highlighting I did in the book.

Here’s what my ebrary bookshelf looks like — note the list of books and the list of links to highlighting I did in the book. You can see also that I don’t have any folders yet, but they would appear on the left side of the window.

You should create a user account if you plan on using ebrary — a user account is how you access ebrary’s best features. When you arrive on the ebrary page, even if by the proxy authentication, you are not already logged in (i.e. your W&M credentials do not sign you in to an individual ebrary account, just to W&M’s subscription) — you’ll need to create a separate account. Click on the “Sign In” link on the upper right, and you’ll see a link to create an account, and also a sign in page. Fill out the form and you’re ready to go!

Creating an account lets you do extra stuff that is really useful when using e-books, like saving books to a “bookshelf,” save notes and highlighting, and download PDF portions of a book. You can save any book that you find or look at in ebrary to your bookshelf, which can be sorted into different folders, if you’re so inclined.

2. Searching the Collection, Saving References

With ebrary, you can do full-text searches of all of the books in their collection, and, when you do a book search it also searches the full text of a book. This is amazing, and not something you can do in Swem’s regular book catalog, which searches based on title, subject, author, etc. Each book in your search results also has a “find similar” button, which does exactly what it sounds like — it does another search to find similar books. This is nice for building up a bibliography if you’re doing research on a particular subject.

From a list of search results, you can also save your search or export the list of books. Yes, you heard me right — you can export a list to a number of different citation managers, or just as text to paste into a word processor document like Microsoft Word. You can also export a list of books from your Bookshelf if they are in a folder, and ebrary lets you export to RefWorks, EndNote, Citavi, or as text. Here are some detailed instructions on exporting your citations from ebrary’s support page. One issue, though: it looks as though the text export is only for individual books, not for a list of books.

3. Highlighting and Note-Taking in a Book

Here's an example of a note I added to a page of Lisa Gitelman's Always Already New, and a highlight on the same page.

Here’s an example of a note I added to a page of Lisa Gitelman’s Always Already New, and a highlight on the same page.

Creating highlights in a book is easy, and convenient for, say, marking passages you want to use in your writing or take a closer look at later. When you create a highlight, a link will appear under the book’s title in your Bookshelf, and if you click on it, ebrary will bring you to the highlighted page.  I’ve found this to be one of the most useful features of ebrary so far.  I find marking up books fairly tedious and it’s nice to have everything together in an ordered list.

As well as highlighting, you can also add text notes. They look like post-its on your page, and ebrary saves them as well as the highlighting, and it saves them on the place on the page where you put it. I wouldn’t use this exclusively for book note-taking, but it is nice for, say, quickly jotting down a reminder of why a page or passage is useful.

Access to highlights and being able to take margin notes is something very important to making e-books adequate replacements for hard copies of books, and ebrary has done an okay job integrating this feature.

Caveats About Using Ebrary

Nothing’s perfect, right? Well, ebrary is an excellent solution for me right now, but it does have some aspects that might be deal-breakers for you: the Web interface and having to change how you read.

This print is so tiny! In order to see a full page on my laptop's screen, I have to zoom out, which makes the text a lot harder to read.

This print is so tiny! In order to see a full page on my laptop’s screen, I have to zoom out, which makes the text a lot harder to read.

Ebrary’s interface in no way is an easy way to read a book. It’s really awkward. My computer is an 11-inch MacBook Air, so I have a small screen. If I want to see the entire page of a book at once, I have to zoom out, and then the text is usually too small to comfortably read. There’s also only one page visible at a time — there’s no scrolling down to see the next page, like with a Google Books preview. You also have to either click on an arrow near the top of the page, or double-click the page to get it to “turn.” This is kind of awkward.

Along with the interface problems, it’s also still an e-book, and takes some getting used to compared to a print copy of a book. There’s no way to flip through the book or easily flip back to end notes or an index. I can’t say I miss the tactile sensation of reading a book very much, but I do miss flipping through and stopping on something that looks relevant to what I’m researching. Ebrary’s full-text search is a huge help in finding such things, but something organic about reading a book is lost when you’re not able to flip through the pages. That said, you may have to shift your reading practices in order to be comfortable using the books in ebrary’s collection.

And one last caveat is that the collection is limited.  If you’re looking for a specific book you probably won’t find it, and some subject areas have better coverage than others.  I’m lucky in that my research area has pretty good coverage, so I’ve been able to find a lot of the books I’ve needed.

I hope that now the next time you see that a book at Swem is only available electronically via ebrary that you click through and check it out.  It’s worth investigating and testing out for a bit to see if it’s a usable resource for you!

About Kim Mann

Kim Mann is the editor and a writer for the Academic Technology Blog. She earned her BA in English from the University of Minnesota in 2003 and her MA in American Studies from William & Mary in 2009, and her PhD in American Studies at the College in 2014. Her research is on technology, the interface, and the body in mid-twentieth century science fiction.


  1. Kathleen Delaurenti, Arts Librarian says:

    Thanks for this Kim! Just a note – Ebrary is only one of our many many ebook providers, so just like with our journal subscriptions that come from vendors, you may have different experiences with different ebooks. Ebrary also has an app to make accessing your accounts and notations easier on mobile devices. You can get the details from our biggest providers on our guide here: ; If faculty are interested in using any of our ebooks for their courses, another great thing to do is contact your library liaison to find out if the book is available to one user at a time or multiple users: