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

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

  Textbook pages never rustle during a University of Virginia seminar about the Salem witch trials, because printed books have been replaced by electronic ones. Students in the experimental course were lent hand-held computers loaded with several assigned textbooks, as well as electronic versions of every warrant, indictment, and deposition from the trials.

The course was designed to take advantage of two of the most celebrated features of digital textbooks -- their capacity to hold reams of data and their ability to let readers easily search for any word or phrase. In the classroom, students became on-the-spot historians, using the gadgets to home in on court documents so they could argue for and against various interpretations of what happened in Salem, Mass., more than 300 years ago.

Many futurists have predicted the death of the book, but the printed word has proven extremely difficult to replicate electronically in a form that is as elegant and easy to read as text on paper. A pilot project here this spring, comprising two courses, attempted to see whether the latest e-book technologies could allow entire courses to go bookless.

During class sessions, students tapping on tiny screens with plastic styluses looked more as if they were taking scientific readings than discussing history and religion. The setting was decidedly old-fashioned, though; the class met in one of the few classrooms remaining from Jefferson's "academical village."

"Whenever we got to talking about something in a document, we would just go to the document," says Amy Nichols, a senior who took the course. The students say they used court records and other texts more than they would have with bulky printed versions of the same documents.

What's more, the students were bolder than usual in criticizing scholarly summaries of events presented in their textbooks, says Benjamin C. Ray, the religious-studies professor teaching the course. In fact, they were often too quick to dispute scholarly accounts once they came upon source material that seemed to contradict the textbook, he says. "I think they're going overboard. They're trashing too much ... without knowing the historical methods."

Losing Data

For their part, the students quickly discovered disadvantages of the high-tech texts. Unlike paper books, e-books sometimes crash. Several students lost marginal notes and bookmarks when their hand-held computers suddenly erased their data.

Some students said reading from the tiny screens made the texts seem more fragmented. "When I'm at home sitting on my chair curled up with the afghan on my lap, I don't want to be flipping through this," says Kristen Buckstad, a student in the course, holding up her Hewlett-Packard Journada, which sells for about $450. The hand-held device is roughly the size of a Palm Pilot, with a 2-1/2-by-3-1/4-inch color screen and enough memory to store about 90 books. "The screen is too small," she says. "It's hard to get the overall feeling of the flow of the narrative."

Students can also read their assignments on laptops or desktop computers. The electronic texts are available on the World Wide Web through Virginia's Electronic Text Center, which since 1992 has worked with the university's libraries to create digital copies of scholarly and literary books.

Titles in that archive include classic texts that are no longer covered by copyright, as well as texts for which the university has bought the distribution rights. Its virtual shelves feature a mix of the often-studied and the obscure, in languages that include Chinese, English, French, German, Japanese, Latin, and Apache.

The e-text center selected two courses for its pilot project: the one on the Salem witch trials, which is a senior-level undergraduate course, and a graduate-level English course about depictions of space in 18th- and 19th-century literature.

The e-books for both courses were formatted with new Microsoft text-display software called Reader. Microsoft provided most of the loaner hand-held computers -- and did its best to turn the two courses into product focus groups. A representative from Microsoft sat in on one session of each course and later interviewed many of the students. Those who agreed to be interviewed got copies of Microsoft Office 2000 for their trouble, though many felt that the company was being stingy in not letting them keep the Journadas as well.

The promise of the Reader software is to provide an interface that faithfully simulates the pages of a book, in typefaces that are clearer and easier to read than typical computer fonts. The e-text center has converted 1,600 e-books in its online library to the Microsoft format since last summer. It also has created versions of the same books using text-display software developed by Palm for use on its hand-held computers. Standard hypertext versions of the texts remain available as well.

David Seaman, director of the center, says the new formats are far better to curl up with for extended reading than traditional Web formats. "Nobody reads books on the Web. You think of the Web as a searching-and-browsing technology. It's not a reading technology."

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