What to Do with Page Numbers When Our Books No Longer Have Pages?

This was a first for me.

For my History of Cinema III class at Queens College, I assigned the textbook by Winston Wheeler Dixon and Gwendolyn Foster, A Short History of Film (Rutgers University Press, 2008). This is the first time I’ve taught this particular course and the first time I’ve used this book. I selected it for three reasons:

  1. It is used in the other History of Cinema courses in the Media Studies department.
  2. It’s very inexpensive, especially compared to other college textbooks.
  3. There was an ebook version available, and there’s an audiobook.

The ebook is actually for Kindle, which made me a little reluctant. For one thing, there’s the whole proprietary issue and the students will be locked into a single platform, although you can use Kindle on just about every platform save for your television set. But at the same time, the Kindle is not a bad way to read books, and I thought that the early-adopters in my class would find it a valuable use for their e-readers. Rock on!

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What I had forgotten to consider is that when most instructors assign readings, myself included, we do so by listing page numbers. That has worked fine on the other electronic book I’ve used, Campbell, Martin, and Fabos’s Media and Culture (Bedford-St. Martin’s, 2010) because the ebook is only readable using a web browser. And the text shows up with virtual page numbers that correspond to the print edition.

Page numbers on true ebook titles are useless. Formerly, the only way a book would get repaginated would be when the publisher printed a new edition. Now, this happens at the whim of the reader. If you resize the type, the page numbers are instantly recalculated. Turn it sideways on an iPad or an iPhone, the page numbers are again completely revised. One student brought this to my attention, and I was caught unprepared for a solution, although I did come up with one.

Thankfully, chapters remain stable in this new reading experience so I devised a workaround using the chapters. The syllabus now contains a decoder that includes the chapter number and the particular headings.

Instead of assigning

Dixon and Foster, 239–264

I now have to assign:

Dixon and Foster, 239–264. Chapter 8: “French New Wave” to “Italian Cinema in the 1960s”

And the student has to hunt for it.

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It’s not the biggest pain, I guess, but there has to be a better way. We could use in-text anchors or something similar to what certain research databases used when reproducing full-text articles in HTML rather than PDF. But we have to remember that there’s no fewer than three commercial ebook formats (the varying flavors of epub from Apple iBooks, Kindle, and Nook) and because one supports some new coordinate system, it doesn’t mean that the others will support it.

[Insert rant about proprietary media formats.]