Academic e-books and the changing face of university libraries

For many years now there’s been a trend in university libraries to focus on the provision of e-books and online resources over physical publications. This is especially true in recent times as university libraries seem to be moving towards a space to study rather than a place to find knowledge.

Issues with e-books

While there are clearly many benefits to be had from academic e-books, especially for undergraduates, there are several issues that libraries seem to be missing, which I fear may be leading us away from what should be a university library’s central goal.[1] These issues include:

  • Inconsistent presentation. All too often publishers present academic e-books that are not direct mirrors of the physical copies, which leads to inconsistent page numbering, and poor readability. It also makes it needlessly difficult to compare notes between the physical and electronic versions of the same book. There is also then the issue of how the book is divided up into manageable ‘chunks’ that we are forced to digest separately, instead of taking in the single book as a whole. This is especially tedious when for example you might want to cross-reference between chapters, or even just flick to the contents or the front matter.
  • Problems with ‘read online’. Many publishers demand we use the ‘read online’ function to access books rather than download pdfs. However the ‘read online’ function is often slow and clunky and poorly optimised for digital displays. This makes it difficult to browse books, and even difficult to read as you are forced to scroll up and down as well as side to side.
  • Different ways of reading. As readers, we simply don’t digest e-books in the same way as we do a ‘normal’ physical book. This means it’s far easier to miss material in an electronic copy, as there is always a temptation to simply skip to the part you need, without ever understanding the context of a comment, or the wider argument presented (never mind the countless other electronic ‘distractions’).
  • The dangers of search. Often the benefits of e-books (ease of access, search and ‘quotability’) can work in the detriment of good quality research and academic learning. The search function in particular changes our relationship with the book as it moves us away from browsing to simply searching for material. And in searching so we lose something fundamental to the process of research, reducing the role of ‘chance’ in academic discovery and leaving work to be guided by a machine rather than human intelligence and intuition.

Example of poor page numbering in an academic e-book.

An example of the sort of thing I’m talking about. Here, page ‘1’ is a blank page inserted even before the cover of the book in question. There are no printed page numbers on any of the actual ‘pages’ in the book.

Wider concerns

Beyond problems with the texts themselves, I believe there are several other related issues that are important when it comes to the ‘bigger pictures’ of academia and university life in general.

  • Students don’t always know what they want. The shift towards e-books over physical books has come about primarily as a ‘response to student demand’. However it has been proved time and time again that students don’t always know what they want. Of course millennials who have never known any different will ‘want’ e-books as it means they can spend longer on their computers linked to the internet, social media etc. However, there really is something to be said for the benefit of learning how to read and browse a physical book, and learning how to reference properly (by hand!).
  • The changing role of the library. This leads me on to my second wider concern, namely the changing nature of the modern library. We have seen this already in countless local libraries across the land losing books in favour of computer terminals for those who may not have access to them at home. Unfortunately, the same is also happening in our academic institutions, with libraries now focussing on ‘learning space’ over the provision of materials with which to learn. While this shift may benefit student recruitment and retention, I believe it is having a long term adverse effect on the quality of postgraduate and post-doctoral research.
  • Too much emphasis on targets and league tables. Building on my previous comments, it would seem clear that as someone who has both studied and worked in HE, that modern institutions are nowadays far more concerned with league tables and corporate box ticking than providing what many of us would describe as a ‘quality’ learning experience. (Of course we may differ on our definition of ‘quality’) At the very least, I believe our libraries are giving too much weight to the needs of UGs, and sacrificing the quality of their PG offering. PG research should be an aspiration for UGs, not something you do when you can’t get a graduate job.
Photo by Sebas Ribas on Unsplash

Photo by Sebas Ribas on Unsplash

Where do we go from here?

I started writing this blog in response to some issues I’ve been having with some e-books that don’t even remotely reflect the original copy I had previously read. While some readers may consider these moans somewhat trivial, I do believe they are symptomatic of many wider issues we face in our modern society.

This isn’t just an issue of digital vs print, or even undergraduate vs postgraduate learning. This is a fundamental question about what is important to us as academics, the value of good quality research, and how we treat higher education within our society. I do honestly believe that if this current trend towards e-books in academia continues, we may well lose something quite fundamental to what it is we do here at universities in the UK.

I can only hope that someone, somewhere might read this blog and agree that it’s time for a change.

Let me know your thoughts and comments below…

[1] Please note: by ‘academic e-books’ here I certainly do not refer to the countless archived works that are a god-send to researchers across the land. I refer specifically here that could be easily obtained and included on a library bookshelf, but is not for the sake of saving money and providing a better ‘student experience’.

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