E-books and the academy

e-book on stack of books


The differences in the definition of the word “book” found in the 1989 edition of Webster’s Unabridged Dictionary and today on Dictionary.com are subtle, yet profound.

In Webster’s, a 2,078-page behemoth weighing in at several pounds, “book” is defined as: “A written or printed work of some length ... on consecutive sheets of paper fastened or bound together in a volume.”

At Dictionary.com, accessible anywhere in the world on a laptop or phone that can fit in your pocket, a book is: “A written or printed work of fiction or nonfiction, usually on sheets of paper fastened or bound together within covers.”

Usually’s days are numbered.

E-books are the wave of the future. Google already has digitized more than 10 million books, and it has a stated goal of putting every book ever written online.

At Penn, e-books have yet to appear on class syllabi consistently, but that doesn’t mean the changing nature of what a book actually is isn’t already affecting scholarship, learning and society’s overall relationship with the written word.

Despite their identical content, vast differences exist between physical books and their virtual counterparts, says Daniel Traister, curator for research services at Penn’s Rare Book & Manuscript Library and bibliographer for literature in English.

“There are certain tangibles that ‘e’ does not convey,” says Traister, who will deliver a lecture on the subject Nov. 6 at 4 p.m. at the Lea Library. “Smell, touch, design details. Of course, none of these matter to most people, but they do to some. More important are the level of details that may or may not be conveyed in e-format when illustrations are significant in a text.”

The relationship of the reader to an actual book is highly personal and occasionally emotional. Unquestionably, that relationship is different if the reader is holding a Kindle rather than a hardback. Amazon’s 10-ounce, handheld electronic device allows users to download a book in 60 seconds. There are 350,000 titles available, and love it or hate it (there are people in both camps), it is going to revolutionize the world of books.

Kindle, along with rival devices made by Sony and other companies, “is going to change the way we read, write and sell books in profound ways,” Steven Johnson wrote in The Wall Street Journal earlier this year. He predicted that digitization of books might lead to search engines like Google ranking individual pages and chapters, which could force writers to “begin ... crafting sections explicitly in the hope that they will draw in that steady stream of search visitors.”

The mere thought of that is enough to make critics of e-books, like author Nicholson Baker, shudder.

“Here’s what you buy when you buy a Kindle book,” Baker wrote in the Aug. 3, 2009 New Yorker. “You buy the right to display a grouping of words in front of your eyes for your private use with the aid of an electronic display device approved by Amazon.”

Despite their burgeoning popularity among the public, e-books are not yet being utilized in the classroom in large numbers, says Bruce Lenthall, director of Penn’s Center for Teaching and Learning.

“There are lots of electronic resources that get used in the classroom,” he says. “If we were talking about articles, I would say [electronic use] is high. But e-books are still a new technology, and most professors are still thinking about things in terms of actual books. Not everything is available on an e-book. Whether it’s in print or not is enough for them to consider.”

When e-books do burst into the classroom, it will be students, not professors, who likely will drive the change, he believes.

“Some professors are going to be more out in front of technology changes than others,” he says. “If I’m a professor and I assign a book and [students have the] chance to easily access the most recent edition of it, chances are I’m going to be OK with that. But it’s less likely that I’m going to take the initiative. I’m not saying that won’t ever happen, but we’re not there yet.”

The digitization of books already is having an impact on some areas of research, Traister says.

“The ability to compare multiple copies, especially of different editions of the same work, is a lot easier to do with hardcopy originals than online,” he explains. “For certain sorts of scholarship, the online repro does not reveal a single thing about how a book was produced—a significant piece of information for certain kinds of study.”

Like the digitization of music files before it, the e-book revolution has a sense of inevitability. The Authors Guild and the Association of American Publishers earlier this year settled their lawsuit against Google, clearing the way for the company to continue its march toward total book digitization.

“In the Insurance Year Book 1880-1881, which I found on Google Books, Cornelius Walford chronicles the destruction of dozens of libraries and millions of books, in the hope that such a record will ‘impress the necessity of something being done’ to preserve them,” Google co-founder Sergey Brin wrote in an Oct. 9 op-ed piece in The New York Times. “The famous library at Alexandria burned three times, as did the Library of Congress, where a fire in 1851 destroyed two-thirds of the collection.

“I hope such destruction never happens again, but history would suggest otherwise. More important, even if our cultural heritage stays intact ... it is effectively lost if no one can access it easily. Many companies, libraries and organizations will play a role in saving and making available the works of the 20th century.”

Originally published on October 29, 2009