If this is the future, I prefer the past.

29 10 2010

My not-quite-hometown paper tells me that the University of Denver is getting its library revamped for the digital age. The people quoted in the story deny that there is going to be the kind of book massacre that would make Nicholson Baker cry will be occurring, but this passage was enough to give me pause:

E-books have helped cut the cost of library acquisitions, said Penrose’s collections librarian Michael Levine- Clark.

Nearly 40 percent of the 126,953 hard-copy books purchased for Penrose between 2000 and 2004 have gone unused. The library can rent e-books and purchase them after they are checked out four times, rather than buying a volume that might never be used.

“This is all about service,” Levine-Clark said. “We can give them wider access to what they really want instead of guessing at the possible need.”

Just because a book hasn’t been checked out, doesn’t mean that the book hasn’t been used. More importantly, just because a book hasn’t been used doesn’t mean that the book won’t be used in the future. I thought libraries were all about planning for the future? This “books have to be checked out in order to be a worthwhile expense” thing strikes me as really dangerous.

Of course, there are other obvious problems with a bookless college library, particularly for we historians. What if the book I want isn’t in digital format? That still happens a lot to me. What if I want to browse something to get a flavor for the content? Yes, I know I can search electronic texts by the word, but what if I don’t know what word I want search for? And, God forbid, what if the library’s servers are down?

One of the few prerogatives I have as a professor is to help my library pick the books they order. Another one is the ability to choose my own textbooks. Unfortunately, that one is apparently under attack too. This is from the Chronicle:

For a real disruption in the textbook market, students may have to be forced to change.

That’s exactly what some companies and college leaders are now proposing. They’re saying that e-textbooks should be required reading and that colleges should be the ones charging for them. It is the best way to control skyrocketing costs and may actually save the textbook industry from digital piracy, they claim. Major players like the McGraw-Hill Companies, Pearson, and John Wiley & Sons are getting involved.

To understand what a radical shift that would be, think about the current textbook model. Every professor expects students to have ready access to required texts, but technically, purchasing them is optional. So over the years students have improvised a range of ways to dodge buying a new copy—picking up a used textbook, borrowing a copy from the library, sharing with a roommate, renting one, downloading an illegal version, or simply going without. Publishers collect a fee only when students buy new books, giving the companies a financial impetus to crank out updated editions whether the content needs refreshing or not.

All the questions I posed above with respect to libraries still apply, but since we in the humanities tend to actually discuss our books in class all sorts of other issues now apply. What if students don’t have e-readers? What if the books I want to assign aren’t available on the kind of e-readers that our students have? Will “My eReader has a bug in it” become the new “My dog ate my homework?” If students can’t read regular books critically, will they read e-texts any better?

But as a devoted reader of UD, I gotta say my biggest worry here is the fact that students will have to bring wifi-enabled devices into class in order to have access to the books they’ll need for class. Under this scenario, I’d have no idea whether students are looking at their texts or checking Facebook. It should be my prerogative to keep the wonders of the internet out of my classroom if I so chose. When I want all students to have access to computers in class, we all go to the computer lab.

Don’t mess with my prerogatives. I have so few of them, after all.




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