As the digital age continues its conquest to make all things electronic; books, literature and scholarly works are no exception as more and more Web sites and Internet databases are created with the intention of providing information that used to be available solely in print. While the purposes of such Web sites may sound harmless, controversy has started over the advantages and disadvantages of “E-books.” Google, for example, did not miss their opportunity to be a part of the E-book trend. Commonly called Google Books, issues have arisen over the site’s hosting of pieces of literature or texts that are still under copyright. The E-books that are searchable by Google can not, for the most part, be read in their entirety. The samples that can be viewed and read, however, are still a topic of debate.
Google, perhaps being the most well known site, is not alone in the E-book business. Project Gutenberg, Net Library and various universities across the nation also have searchable E-book databases, all with their own particularities.
Project Gutenberg, established in the early 90s, is more akin to Wikipedia in that volunteer users spend time typing in pieces of literature by hand, according to the project’s Web site, consequently affecting the site’s reliability as a credible resource.
Net Library is perhaps the most comprehensive and in-depth of the E-book sites. It allows users to see all illustrations and footnotes that any given text might contain as well as make personal notes on the text. Boasting a library of 140,000 E-books, Net Library requires users to join while Project Gutenberg does not.
With this volume of information easily available and without cost, how do E-books fit into the university setting?
They won’t spell the end for print, according to West Chester University professor Dr. Eleanor Shevlin, but they can be an added resource or second option for students and teachers alike.
“When you buy a book, you are paying for the editing,” Shevlin said in regard to the forewords, footnotes and bibliographies that are often provided in an actual text.
Project Gutenberg is text that has been entered into the database and can contain errors. Yet, would students be inclined to read an entire book from a computer screen rather than spend the money on the actual text? Or, if an E-book was assigned for a course should students be expected to spend money on paper and ink to print the text and bring it to class?
More and more books are being digitized everyday, as Shevlin pointed out, and while there are certainly disadvantages in the academic setting; E-books can be an excellent supplement for research.
“The electronic world and the print world have a symbiotic relationship,” Shevlin said.
Books that have been published within the past two or three years often take quite a bit of time to be added to academic databases such as J-Stor and Lexus Nexus. Google Books, on the other hand, may have a book published in 2006 available within a matter of weeks.
In the context of academic research, Google Books allows students to search key terms, and the engine will generate all books with that key term in them, and even provide page numbers and publisher information.
Shevlin regards this as the greatest advantage of E-books for students because when a book has been found through an engine like Google Books, students will be able to order the books for classes and papers, even though the entire book may not be accessible online.
The reliability of E-books is another issue that affects students who need credible texts as sources for research. Project Gutenberg is essentially the Wikipedia of literature, with several different versions of popular novels being uploaded to the database by different contributors.
“I think professors are sometimes too draconian with Wikipedia,” Shevlin said, noting that sites such as Wikipedia or Project Gutenberg can be used as a tool to search for information, even though they cannot be considered a credible source.
In the end, the differences between E-books and print may come down to a matter of personal preference.
“One reason I like to use books is because the book itself tells me something through its binding, illustrations and the paper itself,” Shevlin said. “I think some scholars hate things like Google Books because they try to use it as an actual printed book, but the difference needs to be recognized.”
Many people would opt not to read an entire novel from their computer screen while others might find it more economical to print a book or portions of a book from their computers rather than purchasing the book from a store.
Economics aside, the digitization of books continues on a daily basis and may eventually become the preferred way for students and teachers to research and study the printed words.
Shane Madden is a fourth-year student majoring in History with a minor in Journalism. He can be reached at SM590676@wcupa.edu.