On paper, e-books have long seemed like the wave of the future.
But while their attractiveness has yet to translate into a thriving market, that's not stopping the Hawthorne-Longfellow Library from offering access to an ever-growing supply of nearly 100,000 e-book titles. Associate Librarian for Public Services Judith Montgomery said that the titles are provided through partnerships with e-content providers, like Ebrary.
"Our license agreements with publishers allow us to use the content for e-reserves without additional cost," said Montgomery.
Karl Fattig, system and digital initiatives librarian, said that "online 365/24/7 access to academic resources is an important part of our services."
"We're already working with professors to order titles for their courses and research needs," wrote Fattig in an e-mail. "Many faculty already use ebrary titles for their own research and for electronic reserves."
But he said that these "e-books don't necessarily overlap with textbooks."
According to Course Materials and General Book Manager Michael Tucker, market fragmentation and a limited number of available texts has kept the College Bookstore from jumping into the fray.
"It hasn't congealed so that there's one standard format for it yet," he said. "Right now, we're researching all the options that are open to us, because as we've learned, the technology is changing fairly rapidly. Whatever we implement, we want to make sure it's the right fit for the College."
One of the possibilities is an upgrade to the Bookstore's point-of-sale system that would enable it to sell e-books at its Textbook Center.
"Basically, on the shelf you'd see the new book, the used book, and then there'd be a little card, like a gift card," Tucker said.
The card would have a PIN on it, which could then be used to download the e-book to a computer.
However, out of nearly a thousand texts requested by professors this semester, "there were only about six or seven titles that were available as e-books."
E-books benefit from the advantages in convenience, power, and flexibility that college students have come to expect from any medium gone digital. Hundreds of texts can be fit onto a single laptop or e-book reader. A simple download can replace a trip to the Textbook Center or library, and a title is never out of stock. E-books support annotations that go beyond dog-earring and margin notes, and volumes can be searched in mere seconds.
However, proprietary devices, software, formats, and distribution channels convolute the market. Digital Rights Management (DRM) keeps users from sharing many e-books the way one might lend a book.
"Every publisher will put restrictions on how many pages you can print, whether you can even print it at all, where you can access it from," Tucker said.
Fattig said he is "not sure it's caught on as far as a trend." Still, the movement may be gaining momentum, in ways large and small.
"We've seen an increase in the bundling of books with access cards," Tucker said. Access cards give students access to supplementary online material.
Visiting Assistant Professor of Government Jeffrey Selinger's "Introduction to American Government" class uses a W.W. Norton textbook entitled "American Government," which advertises online materials on the back cover. The book includes a code to access an online "StudySpace," which offers chapter summaries, quizzes, and flashcards. An e-book version is available for half the price of the standard book.
"The problem is that most people would end up printing out the book anyway, or at least significant portions of it," said Selinger.
CourseSmart, a joint venture of Pearson, Wiley, McGraw Hill Education, and other textbook publishers, offers more than 4,000 titles for paid download. Their home page promotes the environmental advantages of e-books, claiming to have saved more than 110,000 trees so far, though that number may not account for students printing large sections. It also advertises that e-books save students an average of $56.73 per textbook?a welcome fact for students discouraged by the prohibitive cost of traditional textbooks.
However, Assistant Director for Bookstore Operations Cindy Breton cautioned that there are factors at work beside the list price. E-books cannot be sold back to the Bookstore at the end of the semester, nor can they be returned if a student drops a course.
"You have to ask yourself, when do I break even?" said Tucker. "When have I saved money? When is it worth the price?" He added that "faculty here are very aware of the price situation, and I'm always out there looking for as many used books as possible."
However, the gradual growth of e-book formats has gone hand-in-hand with a movement to make more course materials available online for free.
Associate Professor of Economics Zorina Khan said that she enjoys reading e-books on Project Gutenberg (www.gutenberg.net) and that she supports alternatives in the textbook market.
"Having choice always increases our benefits," said Khan.
So far, though, many readers prefer old-fashioned ink and paper.
"I've never used [the online supplement], but I know it exists," said Ben Stein '12, a student in Selinger's introductory government class. "I think it's better for me to have a hard copy of something rather than read it on a computer."
"I get too distracted when I read on a computer," said Tom Marcello '12.
"My mom said reading on a computer screen is bad for your eyes," added Chris Li '11.