Information, Technology & Consulting

Student Voices: eTextbooks on the Horizon

By Stacy Lee '17

Writing for the exchange of thought, information, and knowledge has over 6000 years of history: Various characters and texts had been carved into mud bricks and animal bones and carried onto papyrus, then paper. And with the invention of printing, a myriad of published human thought became available to everyone. Now, the eBook has joined the list and is on its way to topping paper books in usage.

EBooks—digitized reading materials that can be downloaded to computers and portable devices—eliminate certain disadvantages of paper books. EBooks may be saving trees and also that trip around the block to the nearest bookstore, but what exactly may we be losing in exchange?

Looking around our own campus, not many classes are taught with eBooks, nor are many students aware that the exact textbooks they’re using in class are actually available to them in digital form. I have some avid-reader friends who claim to have “converted” to Kindles or Nooks—not for academic purposes, but for their own leisure reading. I myself am a Nook-convert because I’m attracted to its portability. My reading habits quickly diminished in college, since so much of my life began to take place outside my room. But the Nook’s portability was the right fix: I found it so much more convenient to have on hand when I arrived to class ten minutes too early, for example. It was easier to bring with me to the gym, as well, since I didn’t have to hold down the corners of a book while spinning on the elliptical. And the text-size control was just one more benefit to the bundle.

But apart from personal reading, I want to examine the plausibility of eBooks’ prevalence over textbooks in the Dartmouth classroom. The first advantage is convenience. The first week of a Dartmouth quarter always involves a hustle for grabbing books at Wheelock Books before everyone else in your class. If, by chance, Wheelock runs out of the required texts—which, most of the time, it does—you are stuck on the wait-list or paying shipping fees for used books of unknown quality, while the profs carry on with the material regardless. With eBooks, though, you can  easily buy a textbook anywhere within minutes. You can create a virtual library of 3000 to 4000 books without killing a single tree; you can even lend books in your virtual library to others. No more frustration in trying to sell old editions of a textbook for a fraction of its price.

With eBooks, buying textbooks could become much more affordable since many books that cost over a hundred dollars are $14.99 and under in Apple’s iBooks application. The pay-per-chapter and pay-per-page models allow professors to select excerpts from various materials to address their course topic. I believe this feature is especially useful in humanities classes, where exposure to many different texts are vital to a well-rounded, unbiased understanding of topics.

For all those students who aspire to be authors, eBooks present a faster path to publication by eliminating the publishing company. Writers can decide to only publish their work digitally and with comparably little cost. Software such as Kindle Direct Publish and iBooks Author allow new authors to debut their work relatively easily.

Although the benefits of eBooks keep growing, there are aspects of paper books that aren’t yet flawlessly emulated in digital form. There is a certain appeal to holding a tangible paper book in one’s hand that sometimes affects how one feels about the content of the book. Like all things outmoded by technology, paper books carry a particular charm that black and white e-Ink readers cannot imitate. The colorful covers, the feel of the paper, and the ability to highlight text and write in the margins are all part of the experience. I know an eBook definitely could not have replaced my art history course textbook from last term, which had big, colored pictures of paintings at every turn of the page.

Still, the advantages of eBooks outweigh their shortcomings. In no way does a paper book’s analog beauty compare to the cost they do to the environment. With more than seven hundred million eBooks being sold on iTunes U alone, it seems only a matter of time before digital texts make their way into university classrooms. As more and more analogue books become outmoded in the future, I am probably still going to miss sitting in a corner, carefully turning pages so as not to bend the spines of novels amid the smell of paper. More so, receiving a textbook from an upperclassmen and finding highlighted, scribbled remnants of their previous work would also become a melancholic thing of the past.

Editor’s note: The verdict is still out on whether eBooks are environmentally superior to their paper counterparts. Several factors must be taken into consideration, such as the materials used to construct an eBook, whether a paper book is purchased locally or shipped, and even what time of day you read your eBook or paper book. One 2010 study by The New York Times concludes: “With respect to fossil fuels, water use and mineral consumption, the impact of one e-reader payback equals roughly 40 to 50 books. When it comes to global warming, though, it’s 100 books; with human health consequences, it’s somewhere in between.”

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