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Hooked on Nook: Rekindling Reading

News & Features | February 15, 2011

Ruth Tam

As the new semester begins, students purchasing piles of heavy books  may have noticed a new option: digital textbooks. Carolyn LaQuaglia, store manager of the Tufts University Bookstore, says that the bookstore has actually offered these high-tech digital versions for the past three years.  But as students start to trade their back-breaking backpacks for today’s lightweight technological substitutes, Tufts Bookstore’s digital books have become more noticeable—and in demand.

Ashley Wood Suarez, a Tufts junior, is one of Tufts’ techy undergrads that opted for the e-book option this semester.

“They’re cheaper, they’re environmentally friendly, and you can carry multiple texts around with you at one time without it weighing down your book bag,” said Suarez. “I enjoy being able to hold and highlight a book, but if it cuts down the ridiculous costs of textbooks, especially ones that I know I will never use again, then I’m willing to compromise.”

This prominence of digital options coincides with the recent launch of Barnes and Noble’s new digital study tool, NOOKstudy, a digital textbook application that computer users download and install in their Macs or PCs. Once downloaded, NOOKstudy lets readers purchase the (often cheaper) digital versions of particular texts.

Unlike other forms of hand-held e-books such as Kindles, NOOKstudy allows readers to read books on the large screens of their very own computers.  LaQuaglia explains that Barnes and Noble designed NOOKstudy with input from college students and professors, with the goal of creating a study tool that is both applicable and user-friendly. Rather than straining to read the small type of PDFs on Blackboard, NOOKstudy users can really interact with their texts and absorb the material at hand. Students have the options to highlight text, take notes, link parts of the text to other Web content, and finally organize all their course notes and materials into a consolidated “library” on their computer.

Barnes and Noble isn’t the only organization creating digital book versions and brainstorming innovative ways for buyers to access text. In the past few years sales of digital books have exploded nationwide. Analyst firm Forrester reports that total e-book sales topped $1 billion in the United States in 2010, an increase of almost 200% in just a single year, and are expected to rise to $3 billion in 2015.  Amazon expects to sell more e-books than paperbacks by the end of 2011, and sales of e-books already exceed those of hardbacks.  Amazon recently launched a new version of its best-selling Kindle e-book, and the new iPad includes many applications for reading books on the phone.  Some even speculate that the idea of a tangible book in itself may one day become obsolete.

Teenaged and college-aged readers, generally more accustomed to digital media and the latest technology, are particularly receptive to digital books. Julie Dobrow, Director of the Media and Communications Studies program at Tufts is not surprised by the recent trend toward e-books among today’s tech-savvy crowd.

“Historically, your age demographic tends to be among the ‘early adopters’ of any new technology,” she said. “So much of twenty-somethings’ time is spent reading from a screen of one sort or another , and this, combined with the possible economy of reading textbooks on Kindles or other e-readers, would certainly make [digital texts] a viable option.”

Suarez also commented on this speculated gravitation toward digital texts, accessible and cheap alternatives to their old-age counterparts.

“The overall trend toward digital books does give users instant access to a variety of works. Eventually, I’m sure it’ll surpass physical stores and provide much more material to the consumer like Amazon.com.”

In spite of these speculations and burgeoning trends, sales of e-books at the Tufts bookstore remain small.  LaQuaglia says that, while sales of e-books have increased this semester, they haven’t seemed to fully take among Tufts students yet.

“[While] we may have sold five last semester, we are now selling twenty, so it is still a very small portion of our total sales,” LaQuadglia said.

So why aren’t more Tufts students taking advantage of NOOKstudy and purchasing the less expensive, digital versions of their class textbooks?  LaQuaglia believes that part of the reason is that students are simply not aware of all that this new study tool offers. Students not as well-versed in digital devices might have the misconception that a digital book makes it much harder for them to take notes and highlight, or they may assume that they’ll have to squint to read small online type.  But LaQuaglia notes that once students become more aware of NOOKstudy‘s extensive potential, they might pick up on the trend and gradually convert to digital books. Indeed Forrester statistics report that while only 7% of online consumers read digital books in 2010, these readers now access nearly two-thirds of their books digitally. This suggests that once readers switch to digital, they won’t be returning to good ol’ print so fast.

LaQuaglia acknowledges that there are still many adults and students who, unprepared to give up the coziness of curling up with a physical book, simply prefer books in hard copy.  Katherine Schimmer, a 5th year Senior at Tufts, agrees.

«The act of actually holding the book and reading the text is more fulfilling and satisfying, and helps me to retain the information better,” Schimmer said. “Also, too much time in front of the computer makes me have a headache.»

While not quite ready to launch into the trend herself, Senior Swati Shah supports Tufts’ embrace of today’s up-and-coming digital technology.

“I don’t like digital books, but I think it’s good that the bookstore is offering e-books now because the younger generation will want that,” Shah said. “It already seems like the underclassmen use their computers more, so it’s only natural that they will use more e-books in the future.”

Only time will tell how Tufts students will respond to this new wave of digital technology, infusing bookstores nationwide. E-books certainly have the potential to revolutionize the way that students study and learn. But the question remains: will Tufts students ever truly be ready to give up the physical and go digital?