E-books: an introduction

An Introduction to E-books

E-books are electronic books and have become an important part of library resources. They are very useful for readers because:

  • They generally can be accessed anytime, anywhere
  • They can’t be damaged or lost
  • They don’t have to be returned

The McGill Library has access to many e-book collections on a great variety of subjects, from technical and academic topics, to literature and general fiction. However, it can take a bit of knowledge and help to navigate the world of e-books effectively.


Finding the right eBook:

You can limit your search in the McGill catalogue for only e-books. For more information as well as search tips, please look at the section on Finding eBooks.


Reading and using an e-book:

Once you have found a title, there are several factors which influence how you can use and read your e-book.


1. What kind of file is it? File types

Unlike books, ebooks do not exist in one standard format.  For example, here are some file types you may see:

  • .azw
  • .ascm
  • .doc
  • .html
  • .mobi or.prc
  • .pdf
  • .rtf
  • .tpz

…and there are more!

File types are not interchangeable and this can cause some problems. Not all devices can understand all file types, so it is important to know which file types are supported by your device. Laptops can generally access everything with the right program. For technical help with devices, please see the More help page, or you can Ask a librarian.


2. What collection is the e-book part of?

McGill Library’s e-book collections are available from different publishers and platforms, and each of their e-book sites work a little differently. For example, some of them allow you to download the e-book in whole or in part, and some don’t allow downloading at all. Thus, if you are looking specifically for an e-book you can read offline, you might be limited to certain collections.  For more information on the various collections and what each allows, please see Downloading e-books and Printing and copying.


4. Does your e-book have Digital Rights Management (DRM)?

Digital rights management is something used and applied by rights holder, like authors and publishers, to help protect the copyright of their e-books, as it can stop people sharing e-book files without permission.  Unfortunately, DRM can be confusing, as it is not required for every e-book, but when used, it often requires special software so that the e-book file works. McGill Library has both e-books with, and without DRM. For more information, please see the page on Adobe Digital Editions.


5. Do you use assistive technology?

If you have questions on how to find accessible e-books, please see the page on Accessibility.

Free e-book resources

Q: Who invented the first e-book and e-reader? A: There are several candidates: Bob Brown conceived of a mechanical reader and book in his essay “The Readies” in 1930.  The first automated reader was invented by Angela Ruiz Robles in 1949. She hoped to reduce the number of books students had to carry to school.  The first text was put online by Michael Hart, a student at the University of Illinois in 1971. He put “The Declaration of Independence”, on ARPAnet, a precursor to today’s internet.

Sources:   Schuessler, Jennifer. “The Godfather of the E-Reader.”  New York Times, 8 April 2010, p. 27.  “E-Reader”. An Uncommon History of Common Things. Vol. 2.  National Geographic, 2015.  Font is Dana Library Hand by Margo Burns

  • The Online Books Page:
    The University of Pennsylvania hosts a large directory of e-books freely readable over the internet.
  • Internet Archive Ebooks:
    The Internet Archive has a collection of free e-books and texts. There is an additional collection of modern books that are free to borrow if you have a free archive.org account and Adobe Digital Editions.
  • Project Gutenberg:
    Project Gutenberg has many e-books and classic texts in various formats, as well as audiobooks.
  • Oapen Library:
    The Oapen Library contain freely accessible academic books, mainly in the areas of the humanities and social sciences.
  • Smithsonian Books Online:
    Smithsonian Libraries has a collection of free e-books online, most of which are in the public domain.



Questions? Ask us!  Chat • Email • Text • Call            Send feedback    Report a problem

Back to top