Thursday, 23 February 2012

Quick, very naive question on e-books

Our university library is adopting the policy of only buying electronic versions of books when it can. I can see the attractions: instant access to many people simultaneously, less wear and tear, less space used.

But does it alter the ways in which we own, relate to and use books, and do these questions have any relevance in an academic setting? I gather that an e-book on your Kindle is owned by the copyright holder: it can be wiped from your machine, and you can't give it or lend it to anyone. Is it the same for libraries and their users?

I worry that the e-book distances us from the text: it can't be underlined, scribbled on, held open with a mug while you consult one of the other ten books lying open on your desk, you can't stick bits of paper in to mark an important point that does/doesn't relate to the page you're currently reading. Perhaps there are solutions to these things: my students are bringing Kindles to class with no discernible loss, and in some ways its better: many texts which would never have been printed are now available electronically.

However, there is an identifiable academic failing. Many students are now using Google Books as a primary research tool: searching for a word or phrase, extracting it from the Google or e-book source and claiming to have read the text. So often I find the relevant passage and discover that the student's misunderstood because they haven't read beyond the sentence, page or paragraph from which the quote came. This isn't research: it's data-mining: they're not the same thing.

On a minor point: I hate reading on a screen - my eyes really hurt after a while, which is why I resist electronic marking. I can't face reading 400 essays on a computer, nor do I want to read 400 pages of a critical text on one.

But as I say - it's an area I've not investigated. What are the gains and losses from a bookless academic library?

Update: fascinating defence of e-books by Tim Pears in the NY Review of Books.


oldgirlatuni said...

I have mixed feelings about e-books. On the one hand, I agree, it's difficult to get the closeness to the text - marking, highlighting, post it notes (colour coded, of course), but on the other hand, it does give students access to the texts that they need.

In one of the modules that I teach, the recommended text is the size of a breeze block, and is very expensive. Last year, when the e-book wasn't available via the University library, I noticed a large number of students who hadn't done the readings for seminars. This year, with the e-book available to all, I'm getting higher percentages of students who have done the readings, and this has got to be a good thing.

I also really like electronic marking - and I never thought that I would. One of the modules that I teach demands that I mark everything electronically, while the other is still paper based. Honestly, I provide much fuller feedback for those essays that I mark on screen. I can use 'boilerplate' text for those comments that I have to write again and again, and because I'm a touch typist, I can write what I'm thinking at a reasonable speed. It actually saves me time.

The other real advantage for e-books comes in my research. I have a couple of 19th Century select committee reports that I use time and time again - both of which are in excess of 300 pages. That's a lot of paper to carry around. So, I use the pdfs on my iPad - easy to carry, and I can magnify the text as I need them, which is essential for ageing eyes.

My kindle, however, I only use for reading for pleasure!

But, I still like paper. I like the feel of old books that have been used before. I'm always interested to see what other people have marked, and I like the feeling that I'm part of a continuity.

Jason D Jawando said...

I have mixed feelings about ebooks too. This is in part because of my age - I'm forty and kind of feel that Im caught between my parents' world, who'll never completely get computer technology, and a younger generation who don't have to think twice about it.

I've had my Kindle since September, but I'm not sure I have quite had the best out of it. I use it like a book, really - I read it, and that's about it. I'm sure there are loads of other features that I'm missing out on, but I'll probably never know for certain.

I'm still very attached to the physicality of books and have probably bought more since September than I did in the previous 5 months. The convenience is, of course, obvious. I downloaded the complete works of Charles Dickens (a snip at £2) and made a cheap joke about the Kindle not being any heavier. I also found it very easy to read.

I can't speak about any teaching implications, because I'm not a teacher. I suspect I wouldn't have used it when I was a student (it would be difficult to reference for one thing).

As an aside, it does through up some interesting questions about society's attitudes to intellectual property. When people began buying PCs that could burn CDs, a number of my friends suggested that it showed how overpriced music CDs were, as blank CDs cost 50p, they thought that the other £9.50 or so must be pure profit. I tried to explain that what you really buy is the content, but I think most 'consumers' thought only in terms of the artefact. It would be interesting to see how many people object to downloading an ebook (which is just a lot of words on a screen) for the same price as 400 pages of paper and ink.

The Plashing Vole said...

Thanks you two: extended response when I find the time, but your comments are really useful. I think you both feel as ambiguous as I do - horses for courses, I guess. If I travelled a lot, I'd definitely have an ereader or iPad. As it is, I'm never more than inches from a book, and I like to scribble on those I'm working on (unless they're rare/fragile).

More later.

Benjamin Judge said...

Speaking as a student, I try to buy as much as possible (and certainly buy all the set texts because I will want to scribble notes in them) but having journals available electronically means not only do I not have to hope they are not being used/stolen/lost etc, I can even access them from my home. If textbooks were similarly accessable, that would be a godsend.

The Plashing Vole said...

Availability is definitely a big issue - we frequently find students hiding the one copy of a text, especially if it's a library-consultation only book. Being able to access pretty much any journal immediately is amazing too - I remember the old days of ordering a copy from the British Library or wherever, and waiting weeks for it to turn up.

I do worry about the wider implications a bit - do libraries have to pay an ongoing rental for e-books, or do they own it after the initial payment as you would with a paper book?