Sooner or later, any discussion about making course materials more affordable comes around to this question: Why not publish all textbooks in digital format and make them available through the campus library?
That always seems like the perfect solution to people who aren’t actually involved in creating, acquiring, or using textbooks. For college students and researchers, digital materials via the library represent a mixed bag. The campus newspaper at the University of Virginia-Wise aptly highlighted some of those plusses and minuses.
On the up side, through database subscriptions, libraries can provide access to digital materials that they wouldn’t be able to acquire in print. Conversely, the Highland Cavalier noted, some older databases are stored on CD-ROMs, which makes them inaccessible to users of new computers that don’t have a CD slot.
Unlike print copies, libraries don’t own all of the digital works in their catalogs. Access is lost when the subscription lapses or if a publisher terminates a title. In any case, many textbooks don’t tap into the extra functionality offered by digital technologies because they were created specifically for print consumption.
“Most textbook authors do not have the expertise to create this kind of [digital] content,” a mathematics professor and textbook author told the Highland Cavalier article. “As long as a book exists in both digital and paper form, there is a desire to keep the two versions similar.”