Undergraduates and E-Books: A Marriage Made With a Shotgun

Sisters in Crime, a mystery writer's organization of which I am a member, has recently released a study of mystery book buyers conducted by the folks at Bowker.

January 19, 2011

Sisters in Crime, a mystery writer's organization of which I am a member, has recently released a study of mystery book buyers conducted by the folks at Bowker. When I read it, I noticed one intriguing data point in particular that happened to jibe interestingly with information students in my January term class have been gathering.

As we all know (because it's in the news constantly) e-books are big and getting bigger. All kinds of Kindles, Nooks, and iPads were given as Christmas gifts, and it's impossible to enter a Barnes and Noble without being mugged by a Nook seller (not to be confused with a bookseller; content sold separately). The percentage increase in e-book sales is proof of a phenomenon. The latest stats from the Association of American Publishers report a 165.6% increase year to date - and that's without December's figures included yet; all those new devices are likely to have kindled new desires, so figures for 2010 in total are likely to be much higher.

We also can tell from comments posted to virtually any news story about e-books that people feel passionately about them, both pro and con. For some, this is not just a wave of the future, but a tsunami of progress; for others, it is a catastrophe. For many on both sides, it seems inevitable: we will have e-books, and nothing but e-books, like it or not. I see this as being rather like the fuss kicked up when mass market paperbacks were first introduced to the market and many predicted the End of Publishing as We Know It. In fact, it became just another option, one that profoundly affected the marketing and distribution of books, but didn't put an end to what we had before, and I suspect that will be the case with e-books.

But the chart that caught my eye in the Sisters in Crime study had to do with ages found on page 39. Readers over 60 were not terribly receptive to e-books, with 60% saying they just weren't tempted. Interest was highest among those in their 30s and 40s. But the under 30 crowd? They are nearly as skeptical as their grandparents, with 58% saying they had no interest in e-books. Of that group, price wasn't the biggest issue. They just prefer the experience of a printed book.

Students in my course conducted a wholly unscientific survey of fellow students. A minority of the 176 students who were surveyed had bought and/or read an e-book, either for courses or for fun. Of that group, print was preferred to e-books ten to one. Of the students who had no experience with e-books, five said they'd choose an electronic format, all things being equal; 29 said they would buy an e-book if it was up to 1/3 cheaper - and 108 said they preferred print. I'd call that a landslide.

This is, of course, just a self-reported prejudice among a convenience sample, not an indicator of actual behavior. Students are sentimental about books, but maybe they'll grow out of it. As another librarian pointed out to me, it's not particularly useful information for academic libraries as we decide what to acquire. Neither of these surveys addresses students' preferences when doing research, and many students resist using books altogether when writing papers if articles and Websites will do the job. Printed books are long and complex, and worst of all, you have to leave your computer to go find them on the shelves. (The Library of Congress classification system alone is reason enough for many of them to avoid our book collection. They find it baffling.) With so many libraries shifting what's left of their budget after paying for journals and databases to e-book collections, and with new ventures such as JSTOR and Muse adding university press books to their collection, the days of hand-picking books for your library's shelves when there's no guarantee they will ever be used may be over, or at least may be a smaller piece of our collection strategy.

I guess I will have to get used to this reality. But I can't help wondering whether students who use those collections of digital books will grow even more distanced from the notion that all of these texts are in conversation together, that they are not stuff to be mined and recombined according to some obscure set of rules, but that they were created by writers like them who were seeking meaning, and that meaning can be generated out of that web of related conversations.

True, students may already may dismiss the notion that books relate in some way to one another, and even when they had to use journals in print, they didn't really cotton to the fact that the articles were in some way related if not by topic, by zeitgeist or discipline or editorial whim. But creating a library's collection around what nuggets of quotations a student might pull out of the ether in order to patch together into a paper they don't really care about ... that just makes me feel vaguely depressed.

Students' regard for old-fashioned books may be only a sentimental fetish, a throwback to an earlier era, but I am pretty sure students of the future will never develop that kind of attachment to or respect for digital files.


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