It is still early in the development process for ebooks and, from my experience, I find few genealogical researchers are yet actively searching for electronically available copies of the sources they are researching. The exception is online databases of both indexes and source documents. There are always some early adopters out there who have been using electronic resources for some time, but the fragmentary nature of the genealogical resources make using them a bit difficult.
There is a new paradigm appearing in the online world; the ability to check out ebooks, just as you would a traditional paper book, from a public or private library. However, the issues involved in expanding the availability of ebooks are almost overwhelming. Not only are there legal issues involving copyright and ownership, but there are the practical issues of format and processing the ebooks for distribution. Despite these obstacles, the number of available ebooks continues to grow and it is very likely that the number of genealogically related books will increase along with those of general interest.
Involved in all of this technological change are the underlying issues of the survivability of the traditional libraries and even the traditional book publishing businesses. Signs of the changes are everywhere apparent if you are interested. Otherwise, most of the changes are occurring in a news vacuum. Unless the controversy evolves into a major lawsuit between multi-national corporations, the issues are confined to library and trade publications not generally unobserved by the public.
Genealogists use libraries and the books produced by publishing companies. We are probably only a very small market for either libraries or publishers, but as researchers, we are huge individual consumers. We are not unique in our use of published resources, but should be concerned about the developments of availability simply because of our interest in the material under discussion, that is, books.
First some background. Here is an interesting article highlighting the issues involving both publishers and libraries entitled "Frequently Asked E-book Questions from Public Librarians" Prepared by the OITP E-book Task Force and dated June 2011. Here is another more recent article discussing similar issues called, "Why We Miss the First Sale Doctrine in Digital Libraries" written by John Palfrey in the LibraryJournal. Here is yet another article entitled, "All Hat, No Cattle: A Call for Libraries to Transform Before It’s Too Late" by Jamie LaRue, also in the LibraryJournal. This third of these articles explores the options open to libraries to survive the digitization of the world's paper books.
Right now, I routinely check to see if a digital copy of a book is available before making an effort to find a paper copy. To do this, I use WorldCat.org which lists, in most cases, the existence of a digital copy of books. Unfortunately, give the state of the digitization effort and the associated problems, there are still many, many books that are not available, even if they have been digitized, if the books are still under copyright, the digital copy may have an extremely limited availability.
How will all this impact genealogical researchers? Simple. They will find more and more of the sources that have traditionally been paper only, to be available in digital formats. Those of us who resist this change will simply be left out of the research arena. Why is this? Because as libraries and publishers realize the efficiency of ebooks, they will begin removing their paper books from the collections and offerings. This is already happening in some libraries such as the Family History Library in Salt Lake City, Utah. Some of the books being digitized are finding their way into storage and either being replaced by other books or the shelf area is being utilized for other purposes.
This is an area that bears watching.