The problem with e-books for students

UPDATE, September 2014

Some e-books do now show page numbers, and when you copy a quotation from iBooks a limited bibliographical citation is included automatically. Tim Parks, writing in the New York Review of Books, adds usefully to the conversation.


How to take notes—that’s the problem.

With a Kindle book, forget it. The best you can do is select some text and then share it via Twitter or Facebook. Not useful.

With Apple’s iBooks, it’s a bit better. You can select some text, copy it, switch to ‘Notes’, paste it, and then add whatever comments you want. But this is hardly practical for serious note-taking.

Here’s what’s needed:

1. You select and copy text from the book. Along with the text itself, a bunch of meta-data is copied: author, title, date of publication, etc., everything you would need for a bibliographic entry. Since there are no page numbers in e-books, some alternative will be needed. Chapters will be useful in some cases. Beyond that, perhaps a ‘screen number’ plus a device ID (Kindle, iPhone, iPad, etc.) will be required.

2. When you copy the text, a pop-up menu offers you alternative places to paste the text. Ideally these would be mobile versions of apps like Evernote, Mendeley, EasyBib, and Zotero. You can simply paste, and then go on with your reading, or paste and switch apps, at which point you can add whatever tags and comments you want.

3. When it comes time to compile notes for review or to write an essay, your computer’s version of Evernote, Mendeley, etc., syncs automatically with your mobile version, and you’re off to the races.

Until something like that exists, I can’t imagine widespread use of e-books by students. Because, what’s the alternative? Making notes on paper? Right. Not even Steve Jobs could sell that solution.

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