November 21, 2011
"The physical book is a jail for ideas" - Prensky
When I first started reaching Marc Prensky's Commentary, In the 21st Century University, Let's Ban Books, (Page A30 of the November 18th Chronicle of Higher Education if you don't have an online subscription), I thought it was going to be a satirical piece on the hysteria of e-books. In his Commentary, he advocates for a bookless (as in physical item, not content) university -- not just a bookless library. I thought it was a satire when he stated:
In this bookless college, all reading - which would still, of course, be both required and encouraged - would be done electronically. Any physical books in students' possession at the beginning of the year would be exchanged for electronic versions, and if a student was later found with a physical book, it would be confiscated (in return for an electronic version).
In Mr. Prensky's vision of the traditional university, these confiscated books (and I suppose the library books) would be sent to those places and institutions that wanted or needed them.
It is a bit of an illogical approach - unless the endgame is to advance a digital divide among institutions of higher education. If the point is to get rid of physical books because they are no longer needed, than where would they go? Mr. Prensky steers clear of that sticky problem we all struggle with - throwing out the printed word. No one likes doing it, we have all done it, and we do it because there is no where to send many of our printed books.
We will get there Mr. Prensky, but at a slower pace than you prescribe. And, I doubt we would ever confiscate a physical book just because it is a book in the traditional sense of the word.
In Mr. Prensky's world, all students would need to purchase an e-reading device that supports the format of the assignments from the faculty from whom they are learning. Or the school might need to make that purchase for their students. There are schools that do this of course, but given the current budget crisis, and, to be even more localized, the criticism of the cost of a legal education, this is a problematic proposition that again, increases that digital divide. And we would also need to assume either that a uniform standard for e-books is adhered to by all players, or the apps necessary to read all things digital are available to all devices. And, in our world, until the Bluebook editors decide to do create a useful digital citation standard, and publishers publish in that standard, digital books may drive our journal students batty! And the judges. Don't want to annoy the judges.
There are also a few cost issues Mr. Prensky disregarded. Digital materials are not open access materials. They can be, but often they are not. They cost money - even if one was to simply link to a chapter or an article from a course page, the school still needs to own it. And, the digital cost may be prohibitive in comparison to (gasp) an article placed on library reserve.
In his Commentary Mr. Prensky believes the sciences, rather than the humanities, are more likely to be the first champions of the bookless university because of their already evident desire to share ideas. He fails to recognize that while the hard sciences have some of the best open access materials, they also have the most expensive. We can only hope that will change as change marches on, but currently, the march is kind of slow. And, he is correct, the march in the humanities and social sciences is even slower.
Then of course there is copyright. Global copyright. In his commentary, Mr. Prensky suggests:
Whatever isn't there electronically, librarians, students, or professors, can easily scan, as many already do.
Scan them? He needs to review some videos at CCC. There may be a lot of this going on, but it may not be legal and you may end up getting sued. And, you might find that the author will not grant rights to share his or her material digitally, even if you want to pony up the royalty money. Not everyone is as altruistic as Mr. Prensky. This issue is just an enormous stumbling block that has yet to unfold in legislature, courts, and the board rooms of the world. I hope librarians will continue to lobby for fair copyright. We, more than most, know the stakes --- which is why we just do not scan willy nilly!
And what of pedagogy? The word is still out on processing digital information, health effects of reading long discourse online, and retention of that information. Anecdotally, I can tell you that the printers at my law school still get a lot of use (and they are not printing out their fantasy league standings or restaurant reviews). It isn't very scientific, but I'm sure it means something! I need a grant to investigate it further. And probably some PhDs who are smarter than I am. All I know is that students at my last school and students at my current school study the same. They have a laptop, a book, and notes and they use them all. And they take up 2 1/2 spaces. Does their preference count? I recall that e-books are not favored by students. See for example MG's post Digital Access Isn't Everything and my own Confusing Trend in E-books.
Perhaps Mr. Prensky merely meant to be aspirational, but it is unclear to what he wants higher ed to aspire to be other than bookless. He claims leaving physical books behind is a sign a progress, like switching from scrolls to books. He does not raise any benefits from what I can read.
Articles like this remind me of one of the stupidest questions to ask a librarian (yes, sorry, but there are stupid questions): When do we get rid of the books? The question triggers the above litany of reasons why we cannot go completely digital this time tomorrow. I wish these problems did not exist, and I wish I was not the one that has to continually point them out to library luddites. Prensky's broad brush Commentary does not make it any easier to direct a library or school into the 21st century with a considered approach that minds the rights and responsibilities of the school to its students and faculty. (VS)
November 21, 2011 | Permalink
I think you make some very important distinctions. I have a few other concerns that will hopefully be rendered accurately (typed on my phone):
I think the ability to change or control information is particularly damaging when it comes to legal texts that are supposed to encapsulate a specific time or are potentially negative. As a practicing lawyer I find quite a few gems in physical books that have survived by their physical permanence. As lawyers we pour new wine into old bottles at times, and it would be a shame if we could not reference our past or understand it in context. This context is lost in e-books at this point.
Second, for me form follows function. Since it is a burden to copy physical books, I need to process the information rather than just quote and I need to be terse to do this effectively. I focus on logic rather than "appeals to authority". Unfortunately, it seems like this is not the case for a certain segment of the population.
As I see it, electronic texts like physical books are fine and good under certain circumstances, but they are not analogous tools. Without understanding the functional difference of both tools and when and how to use tools appropriately, people make a mistake by comparing these tools inappropriately.
Why not provide an electronic copy (where control of the license is physically linked to possession) linked to the book you buy so that the integrated text can not only be easily shared (in limited capacity) and used, but also quoted, while providing a "permanent authority"/backup. Added value would actually help the market, since sharing books either via quoting or physically has the tendency to spread the logic of the work and thus make the work more important. More important = more sales if you actually pay attention to your customer's interests.
Posted by: William Love | Jan 5, 2012 3:37:36 PM