Queen's University — Since 1873
11th September 2009

Downloadable textbooks take off

Campus Bookstore pilot project offers free alternative to commercial e-books

The Campus Bookstore has been offering free digital books since 1997. The first e-books were offered in HTML format but have recently been re-digitized as Digital Study Version texts.
The Campus Bookstore has been offering free digital books since 1997. The first e-books were offered in HTML format but have recently been re-digitized as Digital Study Version texts. (Christine Blais)

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Thanks to a new Campus Bookstore initiative, students will be able to download some textbook debt away.

Students can now access free digital books in Digital Study Version (DSV) format on the bookstore’s new website, campusebookstore.com, potentially shaving off textbook costs for the school year.

The website, launched Tuesday, is part of a pilot project Queen’s and 21 other universities across Canada have worked on for the past two years to improve accessibility to education.

Books that have expired copyrights or that are royalty-free and available in the public domain can be digitized, Campus Bookstore general manager Chris Tabor said.

This means titles such as Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen and The Prince by Niccolo Machiavelli, which students may use as textbooks, can be downloaded free of charge.

“Regrettably we don’t have a free version of every one of the 2,000 titles we carry in textbooks,” Tabor said. “That would be very difficult because it’s unlikely a publisher would let us distribute their material free of charge.”

The bookstore adds 10 to 25 new titles a week, he said. They’re starting to collect royalty-free books from the 22 Canadian schools involved in the project as a way of getting more textbooks onto the database.

“We select them based on which are currently on course at several universities across Canada.”

Right now, most of the texts are for humanities courses.

The website will soon have links to external websites that sell commercial e-books, some of which include math and science textbooks.

Commercial e-books are becoming a trend at some universities but Queen’s was one of the first universities to offer free e-books in the late 1990s, Tabor said.

“Since the late 1990s, we’ve digitized thousands of books,” he said, adding that students have downloaded about 10,000 books from their website since the option was introduced in 1997.

Tabor said students need to be careful about purchasing commercial e-books, which publishers often make available for half the price of the print version.

“It tends to be on a subscription basis that expires in six months,” he said. “You have to make absolutely sure you’re not buying a book that may not fit your course timing.” Commercial e-books may also contain restrictions on file sharing, how many computers a text can be downloaded to and the number of pages that can be printed from it, he said.

The bookstore’s e-books are free and can be downloaded and printed an unlimited number of times, he said.

The digital books were offered in HTML and other formats but have been re-digitized as DSVs for the new website.

The DSV, created by the digital publishing program Adobe EPUB, allows users to highlight text and add study notes.

The text will also automatically change in size depending on what kind of display screen it’s opened on.

Tabor said it’s premature to say whether increased use of e-books would have a widespread effect on publishers’ print sales.

“Students say they like to read in print and do research from the online books,” he said. “We see [the e-book] as a complement.”

Ultimately, Tabor said he would still recommend used textbooks to online ones.

“The paid digitized versions are an inferior economic model,” he said.

“The most economical way is the used book cycle where you buy a used book and then you resell it when you’re done.”

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