The inexorable march of e-book adoption may be heading into a wall in the most unexpected market — the academy. It’s strange that this should be the case, inasmuch as universities are arguably the most wired segment of American society today, but several conversations I have had of late with academic librarians make me wonder if the “affordances” of e-books, at least in their current form, make them inferior in some respects to print.
By “affordances” I mean the properties of e-books and what they enable us to do. We know that print, for example, has among its properties the ability to store a fixed text and that e-books (when properly configured) permit us to link to other documents and perform full-text search. What librarians are telling me is that their patrons — some of their patrons, at any rate — are expressing reservations about plans to migrate to a mostly- or all-digital strategy. There are things that some scholars can do with paper that they can’t do with digital editions, and they are thus encouraging librarians to continue to acquire print for the library collection.
This is not one of those “the Internet makes us stupid” arguments, nor are these scholars Luddites. They simply have very special needs and put great demands on the media they work with. While it is sometime amusing to imagine a scholar in his or her study, surrounded by huge, unkempt piles of paper, there may be a method to the madness as the use of paper in such a way can serve as an organizing tool. Now that we increasingly are seeing people working at computers with multiple monitors, we should not be surprised that others want even more “windows” open in the form of multiple print documents spread across a desk or table or even on the floor. E-books are not good for this (among other things). Flipping from one document to another on a laptop is not the same thing as the multiple views possible with print and a large office.
Another limitation of the present generation of e-books for scholars concerns the devices and applications themselves, which tend to be proprietary. This means that it is difficult to read the content that you want on your preferred platform. An academic library may make copy-protected PDFs available, for example, but it’s a major challenge to read such a document on a Kindle and impossible to read it on the small screen of a mobile phone. There is a strange split here, with libraries on one hand providing digital content for consumption on PCs and laptops and, on the other hand, consumer tech companies providing content for the iPad, Nook, Kindle, Android phone, and many other devices and platforms. An anthropologist or historian may wish to read a novel on a Kindle, but is stymied in attempting to read a serious work of sociology on the same device. The scholar is thus frustrated at every turn.
I don’t pretend that this list of the limitations of e-books for scholarly use is anywhere near comprehensive and I would welcome comments on other features. What are the affordances of the ideal e-book for the academic community? And could we build a service that would attempt to accommodate many of them?
Thinking out loud here, I wonder if it would be possible to create a service that acknowledges the many ways that scholars read and work even as it provides another (yes, yet another) platform for reading. For such a service to work, it would be necessary to have access to digital copies of every book a scholar purchased or accessed through a library. It would be very, very hard to get publishers to grant the rights for such a service unless they saw in it some incremental revenue. So that’s the place to begin, with economic incentives for publishers.
Let’s imagine that any book a scholar purchased or accessed legitimately (as through a library subscription) could be registered by the scholar with the new service. Professor Jones purchases a book on American history from Amazon or Barnes & Noble and gets a code (I don’t pretend to know how to do this securely and efficiently) to confirm the purchase. That code is now entered into the new service. Now a new copy of the book appears in Jones’s account on the cloud-based service. Jones can work with that copy across multiple devices, annotate it as he sees fit, develop notes that are tied to specific passages, and do anything else that is useful for research. If Professor Jane Doe has purchased and registered the same book, the notes and comments could be shared, all tied to specific points in the text. What’s important about the book on this particular service is its plasticity — it can be read, reread, written over, and written around. By allowing it to be displayed on multiple devices, the service allows Jones to have multiple simultaneous views of the content, the digital equivalent of spreading out a manuscript across the floor.
Professor Jones paid, say, $25 for the original book, which could have been in print or digital form, which was published by a university press. To use the book in the context of the new service, he must pay an additional sum — say, $5 — which is split between the service and the publisher. The publisher in turn divides this income with the author. Since only books that were purchased in advance from another venue are eligible for the service, all parties in this arrangement win: publishers and authors get incremental revenue and readers get a host of new platform services.
I toss this idea out not because I expect some developers to dash off to start cranking out code but, rather, to open up a discussion about the creation of premium services that straddle multiple vendors and formats. It would be foolhardy to wait for the leading commercial vendors to build a service that has the academy’s interests at heart. It’s just not in their DNA. In any event, would a scholar be comfortable to have all of her academic notes and materials stored with a commercial service from Amazon? Nor can we expect a full-blown service from a not-for-profit academic publisher for the obvious reason that ebook formats will be multiple and mostly incompatible for the foreseeable future (i.e., Amazon, Apple, Barnes & Noble, and Google don’t play well together). A university press, for example, can publish its books with all the affordances the academy can think of, but the purchasers of those books are still going to be purchasing books from other vendors in other formats. To create a synthesis, we need to move to a meta-service.
How different e-books are from the Web! Since the fall of 1993, when the Mosaic browser was first released at the University of Illinois, we have come to expect a Web that was truly World Wide and woven together. But since 2007, when the iPhone and the Kindle were launched — fewer than 5 years ago — our experience of digital media has become increasingly fragmented. To put Humpty Dumpty together again, we need new services that are sensitive to the needs of scholars and respectful of the business interests of the many organizations that are working in this area. Perhaps it’s time for a newfangled online bookstore.
[I wish to thank the many librarians I interviewed this past week for their insights into e-book usage at their institutions.]