Before You Sell Back Those Textbooks

The Nook is Barnes & Noble’s e-reader, playing catch-up with Amazon’s Kindle, which now has a larger version, the DX, that the company says works better for textbooks.  Seven universities are hosting pilots to see how well the devices are working in their classes, according to the Chronicle of Higher Education‘s Wired Campus blog.  While Barnes and Noble indicates that the Nook isn’t designed for e-textbooks, they will start selling them in college bookstores.  Should a larger edition of the Nook come out in the next 12 months, expect some action on the e-textbook front.

Personally, I think e-readers, if properly designed, would be a great way to handle textbooks, especially those that are updated frequently.  From what I’ve read, there could still be some improvements to the devices that address how most people read textbooks.  The search and indexing functions of these devices ought to be more robust for textbooks than for fiction or most non-fiction.  Note-taking capabilities (kept secure and private) would also be attractive to students seeking to invest in an e-reader (though over a full undergraduate degree, they would probably come out ahead over regular textbooks).

This does raise a conundrum for textbook publishers and university presses.  I don’t confess to understand the economics of regular publishing, much less these specialized markets.  But I have to wonder if its possible that shifting to electronic versions of textbooks and other academic works would boost university presses and other academic publishers or not.  Clearly there would be impact on the physical presses and associated printing jobs, but if e-versions of books could be produced at such a scale to reduce their cost, or with enough added features to justify the usually high prices, then there might be a future for smaller presses concerned about their bottom lines.

DOE Labs Are Popular Again

This Wall Street Journal article (H/T SEFORA) is a useful reminder of how the national labs, administered by the Department of Energy, will play a larger role in national science and technology than they have in the past.  The article focuses on the influx of resources from the stimulus, but I have to think at least some of this renaissance is from the difference in the Department’s leadership.  Dr. Stephen Chu comes from the labs, and is the rare Energy Secretary coming from a scientific background.

The article is also worth reading for the sense of history behind the labs.  We are now far enough from the post-Cold War search for purpose of the labs that reminders are helpful.  It’s also useful to see the stutter-step history of attention and neglect the labs have managed.  I grew up near one of these facilities, and while it was part of a larger DoE complex, we could feel in the community changes in the support provided by the government.

Another good reason to take a look is this interactive map of the 17 facilities supported either indirectly or directly by the Department of Energy as our national labs.  Before you look at the map, try and name the 17 facilities.  How many of you can name more than half?  How many can you name that are east of the Mississippi River?