The future of books

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Recently the Atkins library participated in a day-long symposium on eBooks.  The keynote presentation was given by Dr. Mark Nelson, the CIO for the National Association of College Stores.  He gave a riveting talk about the potential of the new, electronic textbook:  customizable material, online supplements, video tutorials, interactive quizzes, portability, and much more.

During the panel discussion afterward, UNC Charlotte Student Body president Megan Smith gave the student perspective on textbooks, and e-textbooks in particular.  One of the points she made was that undergraduates do not highly value textbooks–they read them if they have to (i.e., if their grades will really suffer if they don’t read them), but if they can get away with it, they won’t.  Textbooks are expensive –just about any college paper has a regular feature article on just how bad it can get– and part of the cost-benefit analysis involved in buying texts is:  can I sell it back?  Or: can I buy it used?  The buying and selling of used textbooks is a crucial part of student expense management, and eBooks do not offer such options.  It’s hard to even lend an e-text to a friend, much harder than simply handing them the book.

This is the clash between what book sellers and publisher would like to sell students (framed as “what students will be doing in the future,”) and what students actually need.  Perhaps the content of textbooks is better delivered electronically.  Does it need to be an e-book?  Could it be online content, instead, independent of an e-reader?  What connection is there from what the e-book industry (and their allies in publishing) would like to happen, and the work that students are engaging in, in their everyday lives at university?

In my observations of students in the library, and in the classroom, I see them using a variety of media–they might or might not have laptop computers, but they always have something that is paper, either a notebook, a textbook, printed out articles, or (frequently) all three of those.  I see people using their smart phones, but not so much for the studying part of their day as for the other parts of their day–the keeping in touch with friends and family, the scheduling of their activities (yes, that includes academic scheduling, when to get to class, etc).  Paper is still very much a part of the everyday lives of students.  They write notes on paper, they highlight paper textbooks, they write in the margins of articles printed out on paper.  Some of those functions are incorporated into the latest e-readers, and I’m sure those functions will get more effective through time–but at what financial cost?

At a time when tuition costs are rising, and it’s increasingly difficult to find employment, assuming that students will be able to pony up for an expensive electronic device when they are already struggling to acquire the paper materials they need for classes is a flawed assumption.

I will be interested to see what happens in the future.  What do you do, to get the materials you have to know to do well in your classes?  Professors, how will you (or will you) change what you require your students to read for your classes?

Information on Library eBook resources can be found here:

1 thought on “The future of books

  1. silvia

    As an older student returning to finish up (after changing majors) my BA, I prefer books on paper when it comes to real studying. Yes, I Kindle, and Google and copy, but when it comes down to the crunch, I’m always looking for books in the library.

    Perhaps its because I grew up with (paper)books and a card catalog that my preference is such. Gen Xrs might have to Google ‘card catalog’ on their too smart phones to know what I’m talking about. Perhaps they will never know the satisfaction of turning those pages and highlighting, with a marker, an important fact, after all, that tool is on the tool bar on top.

    For me, walking into a library, full of paper, old and new, with it’s musty smells and yellowing colors will always be a comfort memory; like grandmas apple pie baking in the oven. What will the younger generations have?

    I feel for the under 25 crowd; all they have is a machine with impersonal buttons and not much to be said for the power of exploration and imagination. Not to mention the fact that paper books are probably more expensive because hardly anyone wants to own them; publishers should give us a break!

    The option to choose paper over electronic is one I cherish. As long as can lurk the the floors of the library at 3:00, I will always be on my best study mode.

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