Sunday, September 6, 2009


Several people sent me this article from Mashable, outlining the shift from a school library full of books to a digital school library filled with eBooks. This follows on the heels of a series of articles on the site tracking the future path of technology in education and the transition of textbooks to eBooks.

It's a fascinating series and well worth the read whether you work in education or just happen to have one.

On the whole I have no problem with this. When my wife & I were in school (she's an engineer) there were any number of classes where the textbook was a photocopied manuscript rife with errata and addendae and usually in desperate need of some professional copyediting. Needless to say the professor or instructor's name was usually on the 'cover' (such as it was). At the very least, a self-published electronic Textbook wouldn't force me to buy a gross of loose leaf hole-protectors in order to keep my textbook from losing pages.

Just don't give it to me on an iPhone -- as the New York Times pointed out yesterday, the screen size just isn't big enough to meet the task. What you may not know is that when I go to work each day, the main thrust of my career is to faciliate a "Distance Learning" program for my school and the state of Washington. Every day, I watch more students opt for an online path to education and my job is to help them get there.

I keep thinking about the article I linked to awhile back on Iced Tea and Sarcasm written by an independent bookseller who is skeptical of the eReader. He included a brief survey of studies that seemed to strongly indicate that retention was a problem when reading from a screen as compared to reading from paper.

As far as I know, there isn't any current data on how the current high-rez screens used by the Sony Reader, Kindle and the upcoming Plastic Logic readers fare in the same tests. The newer technologies allow for interaction with the text on a level unknown until the introduction of the Kindle. We can highlight and annotate texts as we read them and advances are even being made into digital marginalia that can be shared. If you've ever pawed through the used texts at a school bookstore looking for the one with the most lucid notes and highlighting, you can appreciate a feature like that. 

The Engineer and I - between us - carted around thousands of dollars (and hundreds of pounds) worth of books around. Engineering texts and art history books, lots of images and low printruns made them expensive and heavy. Electronic versions of textbooks are running about half the cost of their printed and bound cousins and weigh nothing. In many aways, at the core of these uncertain times, the reader is getting more choices.

And with skyrocketing tuition rates, wouldn't it be nice if there was something in scholastic life on which the price was dropping?


Scott Walker Perkins writes literary thrillers and novels of suspense woven from the threads of history. His current novel is The Palimpsest and he is working on another tentatively titled 42 Lines.
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  1. The question of retention is an interesting one. I wonder what brain studies have been done on the topic. I know I often remember something I read as "halfway down a left-hand page," but the tradeoff with etext is its searchability. OTOH, there needs to be a variety of editions of the same work available on e-text, just as there are with paper texts so that, for example, different editions of Shakespeare (based on different amalgamations of folio and quarto and editor's choices of spelling, punctuation and added stage directions) are available, or different translations of authors who write in a language other than English (Cervantes, Hugo, etc.). Often the editions available on Gutenberg or Google books aren't the best, and are rife with typos and such as well.

  2. This is an interesting debate, I think for text books and reference related data the future is inevitably digital. From a school perspective though I am a little concerned at a trend that seems to be emerging where schools are spending their limited budgets on employing a tech while dispensing with a librarian, reducing their stock of books and for kids a healthy range of fiction is really important, and replacing their libraries with technology/information centres.
    Interested also in the trend to online education, currently studying that way myself and while it is hugely convenient I miss the contact and interaction of on campus education, the way discussion with fellow students sparks thought, forums just don't seem to have the same effect, for me at least. I also find if an article is really important I prefer to print it out to read it, ah maybe I'm just a luddite at heart.

  3. I tracked down some of the reports that were referenced and they had a lot to do with the refresh rate and screen flicker, both of which were essentially solved by the e-ink innovation, so I think at this point, the change will be largely generational.

    The thing about an e-book edition of say, Shakespeare, the single edition could cross-link and reference other versions of the text. A single passage could be endlessly cross-referenced between the First Folio and the earlier quarto editions without needing to cart around several books to class. Likewise, Don Quixote would be available in the original Spanish and English translations.

    Thinking beyond textbooks, there will be an interim period where it's just another format available, Hardback, Trade, Mass market, e-Book. Gradually, we'll see (as I've suggested in the past) that the electronic format will become the farm team for the publishers of physical books. This is already happening, in fact.


Pages to Type is a blog about books, writing and literary culture (with the occasional digression into coffee and the care and feeding of giant robots).