Battle of the Books

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Have eBooks driven hard copies out of fashion, does the ease of an audiobook lure in listeners, or do students still long for pages to highlight? Hannah Byrne investigates the textbook habits of UCD students

Books play a vital role for University students. No matter what degree is chosen, students will have the universal experience of trying to source a textbook. With many forms of books available from eBooks to hard copy, how are students finding the form that fits them best?

University students are enrolled in multiple modules per semester, with each of these modules usually requiring at least one core textbook, which must be purchased or obtained in some way by the student. Depending on the degree path, a student may need one textbook or multiple shorter books. These materials can add a large cost to student life, one which cannot be calculated entirely until the beginning of each semester, as reading lists may not be confirmed until the class has begun.

Students now have an option that past students did not have, which presents itself in the large availability of textbooks as eBooks, which can be purchased or downloaded from online sources. Alongside this, many books are now being turned into audiobooks, making it easier to absorb the material while going about your daily tasks. Accessing texts online cuts down on the costs and the weight of books for students. Whilst there are plenty of websites that offer downloadable eBooks in a legal manner, many others infringe on the copyright of the author.

The University Observer spoke to 4th year science student, Eoin Murphy, about his experience with obtaining textbooks, “I guess I find sourcing textbooks pretty easy; I think the books I’ve sourced, in regards to main books for modules, I’ve always gone to The Campus Bookshop and they’ve had them”.

In first year for my biology book, it was a huge book, I think that cost €80

Despite the ease in purchasing textbooks, Eoin has found that the price of these books can be very expensive for a 12-week term, “In first year for my biology book, it was a huge book, I think that cost €80”. He continued, “I found in first year I bought two books but never actually used them, I think I opened them once each and they’re in pristine condition at home, even though I spent that amount of money”.

Eoin spoke about which format of book he prefers, “I don’t really have a preference but for ease of access and transport, especially if you have a big book, I think it is handier to have it as an ecopy”. Although an eBook is more practical for university, Eoin commented, “Sometimes I think that you can’t beat a hard copy”.

For degree programmes that don’t focus on just one core textbook, students can be under pressure to source many books per semester. English Literature student, Sadhbh O Hara, said “Most of my modules have been a different book per week so there have been about 10-12 books per module for me each semester”. She discussed how some modules ask for students to purchase a textbook as well, “I never actually buy the textbook”, she tells me. Instead, she sources an online copy or uses the UCD library.

Discussing how she keeps up with this demand, Sadhbh spoke about how she sources books in a cost-effective manner “I always go to the second-hand section, the good thing about English Lit is a lot of the material is quite old”. Sadhbh estimated that the majority of second-hand books cost her between €2 and €7 per book. Describing commercial first-hand bookshops as “overpriced”, Sadhbh stated, “I’ve had quite a good experience mainly because I know where to look”.

There's nothing like having your own copy of a book. It's always there when you need it

Weighing in on the debate of hardcopy versus eBook, Sadhbh explained “I always buy hard copies of books, just because I love writing in my books. I also have Borrow Box, which is the Dublin City Council library app. I download as many audiobooks as I can. On top of that, I’ve tried eBooks and hated them!”

UCD has an on-campus bookshop which has been providing options for students who wish to purchase physical books for 43 years. The Campus Bookshop manager Colm commented on why it is so important for UCD to have a bookshop on site, “We work closely with the lecturers to make sure we have copies of the books required for their courses in stock. Most other bookshops wouldn't generally have a lot, if any of these books are available.”

Colm discussed how the cost of living crisis has “only had a slight impact on book sales”. Looking towards the rise of eBooks, Colm mentioned the pricing of buying (as opposed to downloading) eBooks, “A lot of people think eBooks are cheaper than print copies and this is not always true. Especially for textbooks. Publishers generally charge the same price for eBooks and print books.”

eBook usage increased by 300% during the Covid 19 pandemic.

When asked about the advantages of physical books, Colm replied, “There's nothing like having your own copy of a book. It's always there when you need it. Some students have told us that they find it easier to study and retain information from a book rather than reading from a screen.”

UCD’s library system is also a go-to for students who are looking for study materials. As well as the physical materials available, they also have access to a large database of eBooks that students can access.

Discussing how UCD libraries support students in accessing course materials, head librarian Dr Sandra Collins commented, “UCD Library seeks to provide students with access to their course textbooks, sourcing reading list materials or suitable alternatives and providing access to eBooks or print books. Library staff liaise with schools to try to ensure that reading lists are available in good time for students and will work with faculty to source alternative suitable titles when issues arise.”

Regarding eBooks, Dr Collins stated that eBook usage increased by 300% during the Covid-19 pandemic. She added, “During the current accommodation crisis, we anticipate that eBook usage will continue to be essential for students who need to access Library books remotely because they live further away from the University, or need to reduce travel time and costs.”

Dr Collins continued, “eBooks can also offer increased inclusivity for students with reading or learning difficulties, and this is something we would call on publishers to increasingly implement in their eBooks publishing.”

Despite these benefits, Dr Collins noted the barriers to eBook access, “Unfortunately, not all titles are available to Libraries as eBooks, and often the cost can be prohibitive. For example, the price of a one-user eBook licence can be up to 1,400% more expensive than buying a print copy.”

Recently eBooks have been in the spotlight due to the removal of 1300 eBooks by Wiley publishing on 31st August 2022. This prompted an online #eBooksSOS campaign. Wiley publishing have since agreed to restore access until June 2023.

Dr Collins commented, “This is a temporary reprieve against the permanent withdrawal of the titles, but it also represents an important demonstration of the power of the #eBooksSOS campaign and particularly the support for the campaign shown by students and faculty and staff of UCD.”

Through this, it is clear that both hardcopy books and eBooks hold a valued place in the lives of students today. It's safe to say both hard copies and eBooks will be seen around UCD for years to come.