When it comes to ebooks at universities the future isn't that scary

Libraries are already lending digital "copies" of books

Apparently, some Canadian universities are encouraging students to switch from paper coursepacks to electronic versions. The move is allegedly in response to rising copyright fees, individual ebooks will be cheaper than their print versions.

While there’s certainly something to be said for the physical pretense of a book in your hand and the whole notion of “curling up with a good book,” which no electronic form will ever replace, coursepacks — essentially photocopies bound together — have none of these aesthetic qualities. Since coursepacks are purely utilitarian already, I don’t think it will be long before electronic versions become the primary manner of distribution for them.

My colleague Danielle Webb is concerned about this because of the potential for a high initial cost if students will have to buy devices like Kindles or IPads. However, this doesn’t seem to be a real concern, while some ebooks are distributed in proprietary formats, the majority of these formats are readable on the regular computers that students are essentially required to have already. Very few university classes require students to bring their reading materials to class, so it seems unlikely that students would be required to have reading devices either by decree or necessity.

When I began writing this post, I was worried about the effect that ebooks would have on libraries. Would ebooks essentially turn libraries into places similar to record stores, frequented only by purists of a certain Luddite tendency who don’t mind that most new releases only come out on ebook? Would students of the future have to buy every book they use for research? Would there be a new upsurge in book piracy?

But it actually seems that libraries are getting on board with the ebook format. Software keeps track of how many “copies” the library has and renders downloaded books unreadable after a certain period of time. While it does seem a little weird to have to put a “hold” on an item that doesn’t actually exist in physical form, this does seem like a workable solution.

I’m still unconvinced that ebooks will really catch on, at least in the way other technological developments, like cell phones or mp3s, have caught on (I mean, really, how many books do you need to carry around at any one time?) but when it comes to research purposes ebooks definitely have some advantages, like the ability to search the text, over paper versions.

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