When I first arrived at Trinity as a college freshman and bought my first set of textbooks at the campus bookstore (how naïve I was back then), I remember thinking that by the time I graduated, I’d be using e-books exclusively. Well, I’m a few weeks from graduation, and that never panned out. In fact, Audrey Watters over at MindShift reported on some preliminary numbers from a survey conducted by e-book provider eBrary, and the results are not what you might expect. While e-book purchasing in general is exploding (Amazon now sells more e-books than dead tree editions), sales of e-books to students have not significantly increased over the last three years. Why is this?

Availability is Scattershot

Checking off e-books from your syllabi is like some sick, expensive scavenger hunt. You might find something you’re looking for on the Kno store. Another book might be available for Kindle. Still another may be exclusively on Google Books. Assuming you’ve found everything you need for a semester, you’ll likely forget where everything is stored. Who wants to hunt across a half dozen e-book retailers when they can find a print version everything they need on the Amazon Marketplace within minutes, often with huge markdowns for lightly-used books. I tried purchasing across several e-bookstores for a semester, and it made as much sense as going to three separate grocery stores to buy eggs, bread, and milk.

Textbook Selection is Putrid

Need textbooks for your classes? Just buy the book used, and digitize it yourself. It’s an expensive and/or extremely labor-intensive solution, but it’s better than what’s available. Honestly, I would love to give someone money for the convenience of downloading 30 pounds worth of textbooks onto my 1.3 pound iPad 2. I’m willing to overlook the lack of sharing features, the shoddy annotations, and lazy dearth of any value-added interactivity. Really, I am. Too bad for me, I have to spend my money elsewhere, because publishers just aren’t making them available on e-book marketplaces. Their loss.

The Devices Haven’t Penetrated Campus

E-Readers are not the answer to our problems. They’re fantastic, cheap devices for casual pleasure reading, and even the occasional highlight, but they can’t be relied on for actual work. Tablets like the iPad have the capability to display pages (and page numbers) as they’re formatted in the print versions of books, and the annotation abilities of LCD multitouch screens far outpace the clumsy solutions available to e-reader owners. Unfortunately, tablet sightings on most campuses are still fairly rare, and until they reach some level of ubiquity, the software and textbook availability probably won’t improve. The $200 Kindle Fire will likely be in a lot of students’ stockings this year, but the 7″ screen is far too small for serious textbook consumption. I still believe we’ll reach a point where large-screen tablets are nearly as common as laptops around campus, but we’re still a ways off.

What have been your experiences with e-books at school? Let us know in the comments.