The Paperless Dorm Room

It’s always good to start the day with a good laugh.

Joseph Storch has an idea (behind the Chronicle’s pay wall) to deal with textbook piracy – have all publishers put their books on a common electronic platform and let the colleges negotiate a subscription on behalf of students and dole out royalties to publishers based on use. Students will be fine with it because online is where students are at, and if a few students insist on printing content, well, even so “the system could save considerable paper.” And publishers might even start creating some digital content to supplement textbooks. What a concept!

Evidently Mr. Storch, an assistant counsel in the State University of New York’s Office of University Counsel, knows something about intellectual property law, but hasn’t paid much attention to the textbook industry and the masses of expensive online content they bundle with books, or to how students prefer to read. I don’t know about your students, but at our college most students print any online content that they want to read with care. Like most of us, they hate reading long texts on screen and even those suffering from ecological guilt prefer reading, marking up, and (if they’re on the ball) bringing their materials to class so they can refer to it. Professors want students to refer to texts under discussion, but are not universally delighted to face a classroom full of students with their noses buried in laptops. Not all students have laptops. Not all classrooms have wireless access to handle all those laptops at once. (I won’t even touch on the silliness of an ecological argument that landfills full of printed textbooks are a bigger problem than landfills overflowing with electronic junk, heavy metals and all.)

I applaud any attempt to improve the situation for students who have to spend so much on textbooks, but solutions should be proffered with some rudimentary research done beforehand. Libraries have subscribed to bundled electronic content on behalf of students for a long time, and while it means more content is accessible, it doesn’t make it cheaper – nor does it mean students will use more content. And so far, having all content through one platform may be the dream of some of our ambitious vendors, but it’s not likely to happen – or save anybody money.

I also had to laugh that he mentions Harvard Business Review – the outfit smart enough (or should I say greedy enough?) to have licenses with their content bundled into library databases spell out that it cannot be used for courses. For that, you pay more.

[Whoops – as Steven points out in the comments, I read that wrong. It’s Harvard Law Review. I did notice something else, though, that I hadn’t before – the copyright statements on full-text articles in Academic Search Premier vary from publication to publication, and a lot of them specify articles can be downloaded “for personal use.” It makes me wonder if that’s to wriggle out of use of these articles in courses, with links in syllabi or e-reserves systems. But that’s a paranoia for another day . . .]

A cheaper solution? Nice thought, but I doubt it.

About Barbara Fister

I'm an academic librarian at Gustavus Adolphus College in St. Peter, Minnesota. Like all librarians at our small, liberal arts institution I am involved in reference, collection development, and shared management of the library. My area of specialization is instruction, with research interests also in media literacy, popular literacy, publishing, and assessment.

6 thoughts on “The Paperless Dorm Room

  1. Did you mean “Harvard Law Review”? I don’t see any mention of Harvard Business Review in Storch’s article. Perhaps it’s not all that different if Harvard, in general, has similar policies for its publications. Harvard aside, Storch’s idea is interesting but I wouldn’t give it much of a shot of ever happening. Events of the past few years have suggested that individual publishers, rather than giving their content to aggregators who can then sell it to IHEs at FTE prices, prefer to create their own systems so they can sell it directly to IHEs for whatever price the market bears. So the trends suggest things are moving in the exact opposite direction Storch recommends. Barbara, I’m no fan of the HBR folks either. They pulled the full-text of HBR from ProQuest years ago when EBSCO flooded them with money – creating a “if you don’t subscribe to Business Source Premier you don’t get the HBR in full-text” situation. Not good for B-school libraries. Then again, when you start seeing HBR even when it isn’t there – maybe you are getting a little obsessed with those guys. :-)

  2. Of course, the examples Storch does give are no great shakes either. Huck Finn and The Federalist Papers are public domain – freely available in authoritative versions at Project Gutenburg for any enterprising faculty member to do exactly what he’s describing. The fact that so few do should tell him something.

  3. I was cringing before I even got the end of the first paragraph – on my campus, we are constantly under demand by students to get more computers, because so many of them come to campus without them; and we simply don’t have enough to meet demand.

    And then I realized he was from SUNY and I wanted to cry. I *am* at a SUNY. With the financial situation our students and their families are in, I only forsee fewer and fewer of them coming to campuses with their own machines.

    The money will still be coming from somewhere for something -and SUNY is currently not getting any – what part of this does not he not understand?

  4. In all honesty this is a brilliant idea. Except to put it into effect you’d have to have a centralized or partnership of publishing houses putting this into actual usage. The movement from paper to digital is probably still many many years into the future and I doubt people are ready to leave out the hand of royalties.

    Of course there will always be pirates, but setting them at prices that are meant to ignore pirating would probably give them a better gross. There is just simply too much security and paranoia to have this work.

  5. My boyfriend is an English professor, and as noted above in this post, he does not allow laptops in his classroom, unless the student can show an actual, documented need for it. Why? Because students who bring laptops into wireless classrooms rarely do so to take notes, but rather to email their friends, watch YouTube, and update their Facebook status.

    For the record, in his years of teaching, he has not *once* been challenged on this policy.

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