Commentary #3 – Bolter, J. The Electronic Book – Chapter 5

In Chapter 5, The Electronic Book, Jay Bolter (2001) explores the notion of the “The Changing Idea of the Book”.  He rightly states that by changing the technological form of the book, the reader, writer, as well as related organizational structures will experience change.  According to Bolter (2001), for the remediation of the paper book to the electronic book (e-book) to be successful the latter must offer something more than the former. He suggests the e-book offers a couple of advantages – hypertext to look up words and the ability of e-readers to hold numerous books whereas traditional books are self contained.  Bolter (2001), notes that national libraries for years have been actively building digital sources thereby demonstrating their value with traditional and digital structures.  However, the emergence and advancement of organizational structures in the digital era present a potential challenge to library structures as the primary repositories of books.  Anthony Grafton (2007), in his article Future Reading Digitization and its discontents highlights the scope of digitalization projects by various organizations such as Google, Microsoft and Amazon.  Consequently, the advancement of the e-book, including the digitalization of old books, has the potential to fundamentally change post secondary education, in particular libraries.

Since Bolter (2001) wrote this chapter on e-books, there have been dramatic technological advances that have greatly enhanced the benefits of e-readers.   In addition to increased models, the advancements in mobile technologies have resulted in considerable improvements in the readability, providing colour options, increased memory, and devices that are multifunctional.  Many e-readers use an E-Ink that permits the e-book to be read in bright sunlight and does not provide the glare and is much easier to read.

As suggested by Bolter (2001), e-book’s are influencing organizational structures. According to Steve Haber, the head of Sony’s digital reading business division, the growth is expected to continue “Within five years there will be more digital content sold than physical content. Three years ago, I said within ten years but I realized I was wrong – it’s within five”(Richard, June 2010). CourseSmart – an on-line e-book distributor – claims that e-book subscriptions have increased by 400 percent from 2008 to 2009 (Educause, 2010). The  Association of American Publishers announced e-book sale revenues increased  from 46.6 million in January 2008 – October 2008 to 130.7 million in January 2009 – October 2009 for a 180.7% increase with predictions that it will reach 500 million by the end of 2010 (not including professional markets such as libraries and educational institutions (Kho, 2010).

The consumer market has demonstrated the feasibility of reading on these devices, thus opening an opportunity for them to be used in the university environment (Princeton Report, 2009).  This, in part, speaks to the mega projects by Google, and other organizations to digitize old books.  According to Anthony Grafton (2007), the estimated global volume of books range from 32 million to 100 million books. However, these organizations are driven by the profit motive, and are potentially competitive organizations with university and national libraries, thus having the influence to change library organization structures.  “Google and Microsoft pursue their own interests, in ways that they think will generate income, and this has prompted  a number of major libraries to work with the Open Content Alliance, a nonprofit book-digitizing venture” (Grafton, 2007, pg4.)  By collecting as many books as possible libraries have traditionally been the holders of knowledge (Bolter, 2001) however, the digitalization projects present serious competition as the repository of digital content.

Nonetheless, the university and college sectors are integral to the advancements and profitability of e-book market as evidenced by Springer Publishing’s investigation in to its e-book program.  According to Springer data, libraries and universities are responsible for 63 percent e-book traffic (van der Velde & Ernst, 2009). This is further demonstrated in JISC national e-books observatory project (2009) that surveyed 52,000 respondents about e-book usage.  The respondents identified the university library being the source of the e-books at 51.9 percent (pg. 13).  HighWire Press conducted a 2009 Librarian E-book Survey that determined the market in the education sector is starting to make a reallocation of resources to the e-book market.  Most of the respondents indicated that they have large budgets – 79% in excess of $250,000 for digital resources – yet they also noted that in most cases a small percentage is allocated to e-books.  However, the table below highlights the anticipate shift toward increased investment in e-books (HighWire Report, 2009).

Budget Allocation for E-book Acquisitions

Budget Acquisitions 2009 Current Acquisitions E-book Acquisitions

In 5 years

Percentage Change
0% 14 3 -78.5%
1% – 10% 77 20 -78%
11% – 25% 12 55 +450%
26% – 50% 6 20 +333%
51% – 75% 0 6 +600%
>75% 1 5 +500%
Decline to Answer 26 27
Total 136 136

Source: HighWire Press 2009 Librarian eBook Survey (pp.8 & 9)

The above table demonstrates the potential for a significant budget allocation toward e-books and a paradigm shift for students, libraries, not to mention publishers.

Notre Dame e-Reader Study YouTube Preview Image

The increased importance of digital content is reflected by Joe Murphy, Yale University science librarian when he states “the only time print is relevant is when it’s not yet available digitally”(Hadro, February 2010).  Nonetheless, Grafton, makes a valid argument for the contributing value of original book copies. Grafton suggests any dedicated reader will have two paths – the broad easy one of digitalization and traditional method of accessing physical books in a library, for example. He cites John Seely Brown and Paul Duguid regarding the “social life of information”, thus suggesting that “the form in which you encounter text can have a huge impact on how you use it” (cited in Grafton, 2007, pg.6).  For example, the book binding can inform one who owned a book, as well as, their socio-economic status within society (Grafton, 2007).  Frequently, I have read comments about the tactile benefits of having a book in one’s hand, rather than merely reading content on a screen, thus supporting the point that there is a social life of information beyond the content within the technological device.

These points leave me reflecting on Neil Postman’s (1992) argument that technology will change the culture.  This shift is also reflected by some educational leaders, such as Case Western Reserve’s President Barbara Snydor stating that “we believe e-Book technology has significant potential to change the way students learn” (Reyes, July 2009 ).  These comments imply a positive development however, Postman and Grafton’s observations suggest that such assumptions should not be readily accepted by educational organizations and/or students.  Grafton’s emphasis on the social life of information is something I’ve experienced conducting hours of searching journal stacks, experiencing a journey of sorts as I sought out relevant information, whereas, now I conduct relatively narrow searches of electronic data bases.  No longer are there the distractions of inadvertently coming across an interesting article that temporarily sidetracks the information search for the academic research paper.  Grafton (2007), states that “if you want deeper, more local knowledge, you will have to take the narrower path”, thus meaning the hands-on in the library search (pg.6).

How will digitization change the learning experience in post secondary education? What is the potential loss?  Is the potential loss the in-depth experience with the process of learning?


Bolter, J. D. (2001). Writing Space: Computers, Hypertext, and the Remediation of Print. Second Edition. Mahwah: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates.

Educause Learning Initiative. (March, 2010). 7 Things You Should Know About E-Readers. Retrieved from

Grafton, A. (2007). Digitization and its discontents. The New Yorker, November 5, 2007, pp. 1-6. Retrieved from November 16th, 2010

Hadro, J.(2010).Top Tech Trends: User Expectations and Ebooks. Library Journal, 135(3), 18-20. Retrieved from Academic Search Complete database.

HighWire Stanford University (2009) 2009 Librarian eBook Survey. Retried from

JISC Final Report. (2009). national e-books observatory project. Retrieved from

Kho, N. (2010). E-Readers and Publishing’s BOTTOM LINE: The Opportunities and Challenges Presented by the Explosion of the E-Reader Market. EContent, 33(3), 30-35. Retrieved from Academic Search Complete database.

Postman, N. (1992). Technopoly: The surrender of culture to technology. New york: Vintage books.

Reyes, D. (2009). Amazon releases new eBook reader aimed at educational market. New York Amsterdam News, 100(28), 29. Retrieved from Academic Search Complete database.

Richards, S. (2010, June) Sony: ebooks to overtake print in five years. Telegraph. Retrieved from

The Trustees of Princeton University.(2010) The E-reader pilot at Princeton Final Report. Retrieved from   

van der Velde, W., & Ernst, O. (2009). The future of eBooks? Will print disappear? An end-user perspective. Library Hi Tech, 27(4), 570-583. Retrieved from Education Research Complete database.

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