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Everything You've Always Wanted to Know About Electronic Textbooks But Were Afraid to Ask

Recently we’ve gotten some questions in the Library about electronic textbooks, so we’re keeping an eye on developments in this evolving market. A recent survey suggests that 75 percent of college students still prefer print textbooks, while 12 percent prefer electronic versions. Regardless of the format you prefer, here’s what you should know about e-textbooks as you prepare for the start of the 2011-2012 school year.

Be prepared to do some research and legwork to find what you need.

No one site has every e-textbook that’s available, so don’t be surprised if you have to check with a few vendors to find what you need. The Barnes & Noble at Bentley Bookstore has electronic versions of some of the books assigned in classes, so you might begin your search there. When you go to the bookstore (in person or online) you’ll be shown if the textbook you need is available in digital form. Campusbooks, a price-comparison website, has a database covering several of the largest textbook vendors, including CourseSmart, Barnes & Noble, Kno, and Textbooks.com. The Campusbooks database doesn’t cover all of the vendors out there, and it also doesn’t include academic repositories and open learning sites, so don’t give up if you don’t find what you’re looking for right away.

Free books are hard to come by.

Expect to do some extra digging if you want to find free textbooks. Free textbooks are titles that are either in the public domain or have been made available under an open source license allowing you to use the book for free with some conditions, but many free textbooks are hard to find because they are available through an author’s website rather than an academic repository or a publisher. You can browse MERLOT and College Open Textbooks for listings of free textbooks. WikiEducator also offers links to free and open textbooks available on the web, and Connexions has a variety of free academic materials, including textbooks. Flatworld sells e-textbooks but also allows you to read any book for free online. Bear in mind that the specific textbook your professor has assigned—or if you’re a professor, the book you want your class to read—might not be available on a free site because of the restrictions publishers place on availability.

Rentals are common.

If you’re about to click “checkout” on a site selling e-textbooks, make sure you understand what you’re paying for. In many cases, you’re not buying the book to own it permanently—you’re paying for a rental, often for about six months. You’ll have the book for a semester or so, but you won’t be able to use it in subsequent semesters, whether it’s assigned in another class or you simply want to refer back to it for a paper or to refresh your memory, without paying for it again. CourseSmart, Amazon’s Kindle textbook rental service, and Kno are among the sites operating on the rental model. Consider your needs and whether a rental will meet them.

Know what you’re getting.

Make sure you understand what you’re downloading, whether it’s a free textbook or one you’ve purchased. Are you getting the correct file format for the device you’ll be using to read the book? Have you read and understood the terms of service for the site or service you’re using, and do you know your rights as the end user of the textbook? Even if you’re purchasing an electronic textbook rather than renting it, your rights are probably more limited than they would be with a printed book—you’re likely limited in your ability to lend the book, for example, and you can’t resell it after you’re done using it. Also, make sure you’re aware of what’s included in the download. Flatworld offers packages including audiobooks, flashcards, and other study aids in addition to the electronic textbook itself. Again, it’s wise to consider your needs before purchasing additional electronic materials, just as you would do with printed items.

What’s happening at Bentley?

While the Library staff has started to hear some buzz about e-textbooks on campus, we haven’t seen widespread adoption of them by students or faculty members. Nicole Dube, manager of the Barnes & Noble at Bentley Bookstore, confirmed this, telling us that e-textbooks make up a small but growing percentage of textbook sales—currently about 10 percent. Although the library purchases ebooks covering a wide variety of business topics from Books 24x7, EBSCO eBooks, and Safari Books Online, we do not typically buy print or electronic textbooks for our collections. Some faculty members place their own copies of a textbook on reserve for a class, so ask your professor or check the library website's course reserves section or Blackboard to see if your class is one of these. As always, please feel free to contact a librarian if you have questions about textbooks or any other subject. We’re here to help and are happy to answer your questions.