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Wednesday, January 18, 2006

Wits and ebooks

A mail came to me the other day from the Philosophy Department, outline the joys of the university's libraries in 2006. Below is my response:

You said,

"For a variety of reasons, physical paper books, unlike journals, are not yet being phased out rapidly in favor of electronic books (ebooks). However, such a transition from physical books to ebooks does appear inevitable and likely to happen sooner rather than later. If you would like a peek at the future of academic book publishing, click on the Trial Resources link on the library homepage. There, thanks to Dani Rabinowitz, you will see a link to Oxford Scholarship Online. The OSO philosophy module contains 334 research-level monographs and anthologies selected from recent Oxford University Press philosophy catalogues and presented here in ebook format. I'd be very interested to hear from you about OSO. What do you think of the ebook format? What do its plusses and minuses seem to you to be? Would you prefer to do your own research using physical paper books or ebooks? Let me know!"

ebooks will be, in effect, another form of a fee for students, and I see no reason as to why we should be cheerleaders for such a system. If Wits shifts to a ebook system, which I have no doubt they will because buying books seems to violate the creed of university administration, students will then have to A) download them, B) either read them on computer or print them out. Reading them on the computer may be okay for students with money, access to a computer (and, given the bug you mentioned regarding screen resolution, and non-legacy machine; it is obvious that the programmers were working on P4s with 1gb RAM, 19 inch monitors, and had not bothered to test it on the kind of machines that many of us, due to economics, are forced to use), and who find staring at a screen for hours upon end a delightful task. Unless you have a laptop (which most students don't), you're stuck in one physical location. Computer time on one of the university's machines is limited (there are other users besides you and only so many machines), and, for those who don't own computers, needs to utilised for typing out essays, etc.. The other option would be to print these ebooks out.

Have you ever tried to print out an ebook? I have had to do so for my thesis (because the university is too cheap to buy some books, and I've had to do with the Internet). It costs money (paper, ink, some sort of binding, etc.), not a ball of fun to read, and they don't last long. They suck moisture, get easily damaged, etc. What you end up with is read-once, read-twice document. This would be an additional cost of study, over and above fees which are beyond the reach of most South Africans. Must students now take out loans to read ebooks? Not to mention the increase paper usage; do you like trees? I do.

A quality, printed book can be read by multiple users over many, many years. The cost of ownership per user decreases with each read, unlike that of ebooks. Having access to the library is part of your fees (ebooks, btw, should be free for all, that's their great benefit, and not stuck on proprietry, ivory tower system. If OSO was truly committed to the spread of human knowledge, it'd offer all of its books online, accessible to all). What would we be paying for then, if we are left with ebooks and reams of paper from genetically-modified trees? Yet another revamp of the gardens? Cute wooden benches and quaint sculptures? Snazzy new shops sucking us further into corporate buying habits? Banquets at the Wits Club for top brass?

All of this doesn't include that books are just nicer. I read everywhere (one has to with a full-time job, and no hours to spend in front of a computer), and a book is a great portable information-storage device. No power source required. There's every chance that people will still be using books a hundred years from now.

So, to the university, start buying proper books and build a decent library system. A university is nothing without a great library, and ebooks, in this instance, are a con. They will cost students money (an extra fee to study) and save money for a university that, we must remember, will outsource at the drop of a hat, or gold-plated Wits cufflink.





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