E-book annotation is the next step in library expansion

By Julia Grace Brimelow ’14

The 2013-2014 academic year has seen a reimagining of library programming that seeks to better engage students with the systems, services and academic culture of Burke Library. It is as if, with a new carpet, Burke launched a new face: friendlier, hipper and ready to help. From the Apple and Quill series to the newly-added 24-hour “Ask a Librarian” feature, the library is taking steps to reinvent itself in an age when academics are increasingly turning to digital outlets to enrich the academic experience.

Conversations surrounding the idea of ‘the modern library’—one that remains relevant as a physical place while continuing to accommodate innovations in information technology in the digital age—are not new on this campus. Especially given Hamilton’s own Digital Humanities Initiative, the College has become a center of discussion and research when it comes to exploring the intersection of technology, education and traditional learning tools. The library is of particular interest in this conversation, as the digital tools students use and beginning to change the traditional face of academics.

Take class readings, for example. Long gone are the days when professors handed out neatly stapled readings fresh from the print shop. Learning tools such as Blackboard and the library’s digital course reserves make it possible for students to access their readings independently, online. Students don’t have to fight over one copy of a text on reserve or photo-copy lost readings from a friend. They don’t even have to print a reading out at all. Technology has provided students with flexibility, accessibility and, most importantly, the option to engage with a text in a digital or print format.

I am thankful for the amazing resources, digital and otherwise, that we have at Burke. From JSTOR to ConnectNY, I am constantly amazed by what I can gain access to in the library. But in my final semester on the Hill, I have become troubled by one aspect of the ‘digital revolution’ shaping Hamilton academics. The library’s growing reliance on ebooks has shifted access of recently-published work almost exclusively to digital platforms. These platforms, in my opinion, are relatively difficult to use and restrict my ability to interact and engage with the text.

Currently, Hamilton offers more than 200,000 texts as a part of their e-book collection. When you access an ebook, you go through a specific ebook host, be it EBL-ConnectNY, ebrarym, EBSCOhost or the various other services Hamilton subscribes to. Each of these hosts provide its own digital viewing platform, and while you can install software (usually Adobe Digital Editions) to configure your personal computer or e-reader to display the e-book, many restrictions can interfere with access, unless you choose to read on the service’s specific digital platform.

As a student raised in the hard-copy generation, I am wedded to my pen when I read a text. I was taught that annotation is the key to reading with an analytical eye, and is the only true way to engage with the material as I flash my eyes over blocks of words. While e-books are fantastic in the terms of their low cost, students often lose this integral part of the reading experience when key texts are offered in e-book form.

Of course, there are ways around this problem. Buy an e-reader and a stylus, for one. But that  would require that I spend even more money on a piece of technology I am not so interested in purchasing. Some digital platforms also have online-annotating capabilities, but I find the act of electronically highlighting and typing not nearly as effective.

So, why don’t I just print my reading out?

Most of the services Hamilton subscribes to make it impossible to download large numbers of pages for copyright issues. Some allow you to download entire books, others only allow chapter-by-chapter access and others only allow downloads by the frustrating size of 16 pages at a time. I have spent hours with classmates strategically timing downloads, making multiple accounts to access readings and cursing angrily at my computer screen as the time it takes to access my readings becomes triply as long as I have to complete my assignment.

Reaching out to the librarian on-call earlier this semester, I expressed my frustration with this system. She was sympathetic but said that little could be done in terms of gaining unrestricted downloading access. She suggested that I loan all my books through the interlibrary system to avoid the problem in the future.

Maybe I simply have to adapt to this academic e-book revolution. I have no choice: space in the library is tight, e-book libraries grant access to thousands of titles with low relative cost to the institution and students pay nothing out-of-pocket for it. I don’t dismiss these e-book benefits. The development of e-reading technology, however, has not matched the rate of adoption of the e-book by academic institutions.

The library should offer some sort of standard, intuitive reading system that allows for more active annotation—perhaps through Burke-based iPads or other touch-screen technology. Until these platforms become accessible and integrated into our library system, scanned or hard copies of readings should be provided for the luddites like me to print or photocopy for their old-school pleasure.


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