E-book frustration

February 4, 2010

The excitement over the new iPad has my husband and I rethinking whether it was time to take the plunge into the world of e-book readers.  We’ve decide to wait for iPad 2.0 for now (or another future unknown), for a number of reasons I don’t need to explicate here.

I’m always on the look out for e-books news, though, most of which I pick up from my Twitter feed.  It was there that I came across these two recent-ish posts on TeleRead, “The strange case of academic libraries and e-books nobody reads” and a response.  I read these eagerly because it is precisely the problem of academic reading that concerns me most in the recent E-book Revolution.  Unfortunately, besides a murky prognosis–there are problems, but they will get better!–the posts did not offer me much. (I admit to wanting instant gratification.)

I’m especially impatient because I tried to use an e-book for the first time last semester, in this class–and it was an unalloyed disaster.   I had assigned a couple chapters from Ronald Deibert’s Parchment, Printing, and Hypermedia.  Since it was only two chapters, I did not want my students to have to purchase the entire book, so I tried to place it on library reserve.  The only copy the library “owned,” however, was an e-book  on NetLibrary.  I was initially optimistic, since I thought the format quite fitting for a course on the history and future of the book.  Unfortunately, the platform allows only minimal printing (a few pages a day) and its annotating function is almost worthless–500 characters per note, only one note per page.  The students could not do precisely what we try to train them to do: underline, write in the margins, etc.  And unless they owned a laptop (and many do not), they could not even bring a copy to class.

Through last-minute photocopying (what I had tried to avoid), I solved the immediate problem, and I did get the library to order a paper copy for next time, but I was very disappointed in this wasted potential.  And I’m also concerned, because I notice that (presumably as a cost saving measure), our library is beginning to order more and more new books this way.

Has anyone out there fared better?  Is it just this particular platform?  Was there some work-around I missed?  It just seems that e-platforms will need to be  a lot more robust before they can be useful in the classroom.



  1. We have NetLibrary at my institution. When I discovered that we had this database seven years ago, the reference librarians (who are generally very, very good) seemed not to be aware that we had a subscription or how to use the books. I taught myself (though I experienced similar glitches to the ones described in the reference posting). My students have not found these ebooks that useful, and I’ve not used them much as well.

    I have never assigned chapters or a title for required course reading. However, I have recommended select titles for individual projects students are doing for one of my courses.

    I am quite interested in the IPad as well as theenTourage eDGe.

  2. I’m pleased to hear you now have a paper copy in your library, but I hope you don’t train your students to write in it…

  3. Hi Lisa,

    Thanks for drawing my attention to this.

    I have assigned a few chapters from our library’s e-books collection for my graduate course this semester on The History of Text Technologies. I thought it was a great idea because it would save on the cost of our print reader.

    Of course I had not thought through just how annoying they are to read on screen!

    I have been playing around with the interface this morning to see how you can circumvent the interface and somehow get it to a handheld device. Very difficult.

    What’s interesting about this interface is that a) on the one hand it is great because for teaching purposes it reduces the costs (and waste) of reproduction. But on the other hand b) it totally restricts your access to the material and embroils you in a terribly designed interface.

    It is important not to confuse library e-books with e-books on e-readers. The latter are to my mind quite usable (assuming you have the device and can afford it). I have made the move to using e-readers to read all of my research articles which are now pretty much all pdf’s (where they aren’t I have RAs scan them).

    So here’s the quandary: if the e-book is free at the library, what is wrong with just downloading it to your e-reader? I know the legal answer (one is not stealing, the other is), but a real answer is, there is no difference between these two practices because both are free for the students in your class and you’re just transferring from one (bad) interface to another (good) interface.

    The problem is that to do so is very labor intensive — you have to save each page of the e-book as a pdf and then merge them all into one document and then post on your teaching web resource.

    And of course it is technically illegal. This is what is so exasperating about digital media: it doesn’t make any sense.

    Anyway, just my thoughts and my ideas about how to solve.

    • Andrew,

      I am glad you stressed the need not confuse library e-books with e-books on e-readers.

      With NetLibrary e-books, one “checks out” online the works for a limited time. The copy is then available online for a very limited time (I believe it was just a week), and if one does not renew, the e-book is withdrawn by the system (akin to the way Amazon removed Orwell’s books from Kindle). At least that is how the process worked when I last electronically checked out a NetLibrary book. In other words, the legality aside, the NetLibrary books have another built-in obstacle to using them as you suggest Andrew for a class.

  4. Thanks for your comments. I am perhaps relieved but mostly disheartened to realize that it’s not just me. It certainly seems that librarians need to be made aware that these are not (yet) useful for most academic purposes–like GoogleBooks, library e-books are good for previewing and searching, but not for sustained interaction. As Andrew also implies, outmoded copyright law and the overly-draconian application of DRM restrictions is the problem here.

    And speaking of (un)ethical and/or (il)legal forms of copying, I usually solve this problem by scanning my own book and posting it on Blackboard. I consider this non-commercial, educational copying within the spirit of fair use; others do not. In this case, though, my own book (fittingly enough)was much too annotated to share.
    But Will, I hope my students would not write in the library copy! They’d have no reason to, since they could not take a (say) 2-hour reserve book to class. I had imagined that they would photocopy it.

    Andrew, re. e-book readers, price is a factor, of course–at my working-class university, many of students do not have laptops, much less a Kindle. It is not /just/ an economic issue, however, but a deep suspicion of all things electronic–unreformed and unrepentant bibliophilia. They ate up the Kindle-Orwell story.

  5. most of the time i listen to audiobooks while surfing the net, i love to multitask he he _

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