I don’t recommend teaching with e-books, especially if you’re counting on an entire class having access to a single copy. Having had similar experiences myself, it was heartening to hear that others felt my pain:

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.

I’ve never had much success with having multiple students access an e-book, either. In fact, I’ve been so frustrated with it that I’ve asked our library to order a physical copy anytime I’ve tried to rely on an e-book.

And then there’s the frustration with the technology itself: there are always promises that “the technology is in its infancy–just wait, it’s getting better.” The problem with printing and annotation, however, is not a technological one. That’s just greed and fear.

Really, you start wondering how it is that publishing companies have gotten themselves so riled up over the possibility that someone might use an e-book. Once a library buys a physical copy of a book, we can copy as many pages of it as we’d like, as many times per day as we’d like, and annotate it till the pages are black.

To be scrupulously exact, I should qualify my earlier statement: I do not yet recommend teaching with e-books. I’m not waiting for the technology to improve, though. I’m waiting on e-books that have regressed to the functionality of the storage technology we’ve already got on the shelves.

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