Yesterday my colleague and I facilitated a faculty panel on Ebooks in the Academy at the Humanities Symposium on our campus. I presented research on the use of ebooks for academic study, and faculty presented about the use of ebooks in their discipline. There was spirited discussion following the presentation, just as I had hoped!
There is certainly a place for ebooks and online resources in educational settings. As on panelist pointed out, as a small college, we simply could not have immediate access to primary historical books and documents if not for the Evans collection. Digitization and subscriptions have vastly expanded the scope of resources we can offer our students. Ebooks are also helpful for remote access, skimming text, or searching the full-text. Periodical collections that are increasingly online-only seem to work well; I believe this is due to the shorter nature of the journal article versus the book. Being able to search the full-text of the book is immensely helpful for research (of course, one must be a proficient searcher or risk being buried in the number of pages that say “mathematics” in a math book!!).
However, print remains superior to ebooks for in-depth academic use, and the research so far bears that out. In study after study, students prefer print to ebook format for in-depth academic use, even after they use ebooks and can appreciate the multi-media features. Some of the studies I discussed yesterday show that using print enables a reader to form a “cognitive map” which actually plays a vital role in learning and memory. Cognitive mapping does not seem to be formed in the current versions of ereaders; users complain about feeling “lost” in the ebook. Additionally, students are unable to navigate ebooks effectively to use them for academic research.
So this leaves libraries and academia as a whole in a conundrum! I posit that for the foreseeable future, we proceed in a “print plus” fashion. When books are ordered for the library collection, we need to consider how that particular book will most likely be used to support the curriculum. If it is for reference or will be “searched”, or will be read straight through, or if it will likely be utilized from a remote location or in an online course, perhaps ebook would be the best option. However, if it will be rigorously read and used in academic research, then the print should likely be purchased.
I find it ironic that much of the hyperbole to ditch print and move completely to ebooks comes from academic circles which also advocate that students should deliberately and critically analyze issues; we need to do that same thoughtful analysis for ebook adoption. From what I can surmise from published research and personal anecdotes, ereaders and ebooks are nowhere near ready to be used in the ways in which we still wish students to conduct in-depth academic research. Until we see that change (and it certainly might in the future), there is still a need, a requirement, for print books.
I am not against ebooks as a concept. I use my ipad daily for reading through emails, articles, and leisure books. However, I argue that ebooks still do not serve us well for rigorous academic research. We should select format based on sound research, not hype.