In defense of ebooks

Shortly after arriving at Wheaton, I became involved in a nascent campus-level discussion about digital humanities. Essentially the group's purpose was to figure out what, if anything, Wheaton should or could be doing in this area. At one of the meetings, a tenured faculty member passionately described the evils of electronic resources and stated that the print book is the perfect medium for learning and expressing ideas. This person went so far as to say that the institution's future would be ruined if we caved in to all of this electronic stuff, and begged us to not give into these evils. (These are not the precise words used but the gist of what was said is not exaggerated.)

As part of that discussion we talked at length about ebooks. We were asked what we thought about them. I spoke up and mentioned that I was seriously considering getting rid of most of my personal collection of print books. This was met with a bit of shock by those gathered around the table and I was asked why. My reason is simple: I love print books but rarely use them; instead, just about every time I read something these days, it is online. And I like it that way. Needless to say, for the person referred to previously, I was the prototype of everything wrong. To be fair, most of the people in the meeting do not take as extreme a view as that faculty member.

Interestingly, this digital humanities discussion group hasn't met since.

I really do enjoy, and get a lot out of, ebooks. It is true that although my wife and I have probably 1,000-2,000 print books in our house, we rarely use them. Our children do, but we don't. And as they grow older, even they have started to gravitate toward ebooks. My thirteen year old son got a Kindle as a present for Christmas last year and loves it. My oldest son (age 22) has had a Kindle for a few years now. My youngest son (age ten) enjoys reading ebooks on the Kindle app on one of our iPhones. The other kids have put Kindles on their Christmas wish lists this year.

For my work this year, I am taking part in a faculty faith and learning seminar, which features quite a lot of books to be read. I was provided with print copes of the required readings. I've found myself lately wishing that I had ebook versions of them instead. Here's an example of why: One of the books is The Idea of the University by John Henry Newman. As I have been wading through the print copy, I have found it quite a challenge to grasp some of the portions of the text due not only to Newman's writing style (set in the 1850s) but his extensive use of words I don't know, as well as quotes from Latin or French texts. I finally thought, "Hey, I wonder if I might be able to get this in ebook form somewhere," and yes indeed, it was readily available in Apple's iBooks app. With the ebook version, I am able to quickly look up definitions for unknown words without leaving the text. In addition, when I come across non-English language quotations, I can readily copy and paste them into the Google Translate app on my iPhone to better understand what the writer is saying. This makes a tough reading experience much easier for me and offers a concrete example of where an ebook enhances my learning experience rather than detracts from it.

There are many reasons for legitimate concern about ebooks, including DRM, licensing restrictions, very clunky access mechanisms (hello, EBSCOhost or ebrary or EBL ebooks? worse still, Overdrive?), removal of the rights of libraries to lend them like they do for print books, etc. I am particularly concerned about the control Amazon has in this space (ironic, since my family uses Amazon's services a lot). Then, too, there are good reasons to be concerned about and understand the ways in which reading material in print vs. online form are different. I get this, and I read a lot about these issues in an attempt to be well informed.

Just because I like and use ebooks does not therefore mean I am against print books. I think it's a false dichotomy to think of books as just one format vs. the other. I continue to use print books, although admittedly less frequently than five or ten years ago. I also continue to believe that print material will continue to thrive and will be a primary part of library collections for decades, possibly centuries, to come. And I actually believe that in some cases, it is easier to digest and learn about information in that format.

But the reality is that I, for one, think ebooks are a boon to readers and learners. In order to make use of them, I'm willing to be very persistent to overcome the artificial and annoyingly un-user-friendly barriers that publishers and ebook access providers put in my way. There is no going back. At this stage in my life, if I am to read something in book form, I look for it as an ebook first.

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