A University That Reveres Tradition Experiments With E-Books
Charlottesville, Va

Article originally published in Chronicle of Higher Education. May 11, 2001.

  People all over the world have downloaded more than two and a half million copies of e-books in the new formats from the Virginia center's Web site since the texts were made available in August, says Mr. Seaman. One reason for the popularity of the new formats, he suggests, is that users can quickly download an entire book and then read it later, offline, which is not easy with standard hypertext versions.

"We were surprised at how quickly second- and third-world users were hitting on our e-books," he says, noting that some foreign libraries might be supplementing their collections. "They have no book budget, but they have a modem."

Relying on Books

The less successful of Virginia's two classroom tests of the e-book format was the graduate English course. The 18 students were lent hand-held computers with electronic copies of all of the assigned books, but unlike the Salem class, they rarely used the devices in the classroom, says Cynthia Wall, the course instructor. Most of the students bought printed versions of the books on the course reading list, even though their electronic copies were free.

During a recent class session, the hand-held devices in use by most of the students were books themselves, dog-eared and annotated. When Ms. Wall, a professor of English, referred to a given passage, the sound of rustling pages filled the room.

"I love the physicality of books," says Kristen Jensen, a doctoral student who is specializing in 18th-century literature -- and who bought printed books for the course. Like many of her colleagues, she wants to keep the books, along with her notes, after the course, and she knew she would not be allowed to keep the hand-held computer.

She found it disconcerting to see other students playing with their hand-held computers during class. "It feels rude," she says. "You notice when someone is poking around in their e-books." She couldn't help asking herself, "Are they playing solitaire?"

Ms. Jensen did find the e-books useful outside of class, however. She used her Journada mainly for research, calling up electronic versions of rare documents that she otherwise would have to read on microfilm or in the library's rare-book room. "Microfilm is wretched," she says, explaining that she has spent plenty of time during her academic career fumbling with plastic spools and microfilm readers. "And it is not very portable."

Students in both courses engage in many types of reading during a typical week on the campus. Sometimes they are just looking through an assigned book for a good quote to support an argument. In that case, e-books do the job nicely, many say.

But at other times, students want to immerse themselves in a text -- and for that, they say, paper is superior. One of the graduate students, Alex Gil, says it is only a matter of time before e-books become a standard feature of any course. He was the most enthusiastic e-book user in the class, often reading from it during sessions.

'They Can Coexist'

To Ms. Wall, however, the experiment proved to her that a bookless campus will never be. "This cannot take the place of books," she says, pointing at her hand-held computer. "I think they can coexist." Her biggest complaint is that lines of poetry in the electronic versions are often broken because the screen is not wide enough. "Poetry uses space, and to see what a poem means you have to see how it looks," she says. "If you have heroic couplets where one line is broken in half consistently, then you don't have the structure that [the poet] so carefully designed." When students in the witch-trials course were asked whether they believed that all of their books might one day be replaced with e-books, several quickly protested. "That's awful," said one.

Even Mr. Ray, the course's professor and a proponent of the technology, says it will most likely supplement, rather than replace, printed books at the university. "We're high on technology, but there's this cherishing of the book," he says, as he sits at the head of the seminar table. "Look where we are. This is old stuff that works."

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