This is the title of a Chronicle of Higher Education commentary by Marc Prensky, in which he suggests the first university to literally replace all books with electronic readers and ebooks will make history and usher in a new era of education.

Why, in a world in which choice and personal preference are highly valued, would any college want to create such a mandate? Because it makes a bold statement about the importance of moving education into the future. It is, in a sense, only a step removed from saying, “We no longer accept theses on scrolls, papyrus, or clay tablets. Those artifacts do still exist in the world, but they are not the tools of this institution.” Or: “In this institution we have abandoned the slide rule. Those who find it useful and/or comforting can, of course, use it, but not here.”

Prensky describes a process of transitioning a university and its students from rigid books to essentially an enhanced reading and studying experience, citing the many additions to a text that are possible with ereading, from web links and multimedia, to commentary on text and/or its preparation, to networked discussions.  It would be the professor’s job to decide what enhanced material was useful and relevant to their students and curricula.  He describes the process as transformational as well as educational, as significant as moving from the slide rule to the pocket calculator in the late 20th century.

Also notable is a comment about the outgoing technology, books, that I’m not sure I’ve heard put this way before.

Third, and I believe this to be the greatest advantage, ideas would be freed from the printed page, where they have been held captive for too many centuries. In addition to being a dissemination mechanism and an archive, the physical book is, in many ways, a jail for ideas—once a book is read, closed, and shelved, for most people it tends to stay that way. Many of us have walls lined with books that will never be reopened, most of what is in them long forgotten.

A commentary worth checking out in its entirety.


  1. What a silly idea. That’d mean the students wouldn’t be able to read anything that hasn’t gone digital. That’s most of the books published since 1922 that haven’t been in print in the last decade.

    “Freed from the printed page,” “held captive for centuries,” and “a jail for ideas”? Now why didn’t George Orwell realize that? Why wasn’t it a part of the theme of Fahrenheit 451? The poor guys. They didn’t seem to realize that print books were so evil and repressive.

    Ah, but they weren’t as enlightened and forward thinking as this Mr. Marc Prensky. He has seen the future and it glows like an LCD screen. Print books must be burned or, failing that, buried so deeply students can’t get to them.

  2. John Doe,

    There is a lot of difference in a book closed on a shelf and a file. I have several cataloging programs that can search inside of those files and pull out the phrases or ideas I need when doing my research. To do that with just a fraction of the physical books would be far too labor intensive to accomplish.

    The only block is stupid DRM and it is possible to get around that easily enough.

  3. Smiles at Jan.

    I have just over 2,000 ebooks on my computer, and about 1,000 dead tree books on my shelves.

    When I do a search for a detail like “what color was the foxes coat” in my local search I return 22 different references and links to grab that exact passage. What book will have an index to even start to find such a thing?

    Indexing is great for broad subject searches where you know the book has something about that topic in it already. But checking a thousand reference books by hand to see what/if their index says about foxes? It took far more time to type this comment than to do the actual search through my eBooks.

    I work in a library, my eyes are open, I know I will be replaced. But that is a topic for another thread. 🙂


  4. I can see that you have a specialised kind of search requirement.

    For people reading through, or referencing one or two (e-)books, free text search will return hundreds of references many of which will be mere mentions of the words, or completely irrelevant uses of the words. The indexer has done this pre-search for you and already organised the results into a helpful sequence, having analysed the text for concepts not actually named as well as words in the text, and will point the reader to important related material.

    The Society of Indexers is working to produce methods of indexing appropriate to e-books which can be linked to the text directly, thus extending the usefulness of the index as a tool

    Back-of-the-book indexes may eventually disappear, but indexing of content will always be important.

    Jan Worrall
    Society of Indexers Fellow

  5. Jan,

    That is an excellent business! You are doing what I think all librarians should be doing, marketing them selves as the “Indiana Jones type guide to the world”. It is a scary place out there if you do not know what you are doing and to really find things you need help.

    On topic I would be interested in see how your e-indexes develop and compare to specialized desk top search like Copernic.


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