Saint Jerome in his Study, fresco by Domenico ...
Saint Jerome in his Study, fresco by Domenico Ghirlandaio, 1480 (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

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.]

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Joseph Esposito

Joseph Esposito

Joe Esposito is a management consultant for the publishing and digital services industries. Joe focuses on organizational strategy and new business development. He is active in both the for-profit and not-for-profit areas.

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10 Thoughts on "E-books in the Academy — A Story of Limitations and Affordances"

Joe: your reference to the early web years is apt, although perhaps the lens of history has already truncated some of the issues that publishers and readers alike struggled through from that era. (High bandwidth/low bandwidth versions, Does or does not support frames, does or does not support Safari, does or does not support Flash, etc.). Even more relevant are those early PC years where institutions were supporting a host of semi proprietary HW/SW combinations from Commodore C64’s through dedicated graphics terminals with very high redundancy and obsolescence rates. (Of course, the scale of ebooks – with libraries potentially buying entire back catalogs – makes the issue about platform evolution or failure even more compelling.)

I also think there are some interesting business issues. To be sure scholars rely on libraries for books…but it is a rare researcher that doesn’t have their own privately purchased stash of titles, especially when they are annotating and bookmarking them etc. in your proverbial office and table scenario. In a multiple concurrent access ebook world administered by the library, will that market disappear? Will the library be responsible for maintain/purchasing the e-work, but potentially the individual electronic annotations/bookmarks of multiple users as well? For how long?

And finally there is the human/user interface. Generally, ebooks are pretty good for reading sequentially…but lousy for flipping though – either for just casual interest – or in a scholarly setting, to check back and forth between text, footnotes and bibliographic references. Some works are fine on the limited (but wonderfully portable) confines of a mobile device….others long for a large screen or multiple window environment.

I find it interesting too that in the journal world, users overwhelmingly gravitate to downloading the PDF version of an article (typically in 2 column, densely typeset format) over the more readable, and potentially more “smart” and/or malleable HTML version. Why are they eschewing the digitally native form for something mired in print/legacy conforms? Simply for long term portiblity? Or for short term format familiarity?

  • Brandon Nordin
  • Apr 4, 2012, 9:59 AM

At least some users use the PDF version because it can be cited with accurate, consistent pagination, just like the print version. Also, for those of us who still print some of the articles we read, the PDF version uses less paper, and tables and other figures are often more readable.

  • Janet
  • Apr 9, 2012, 4:58 PM

Joe, thank you for this piece. Its nigh time to find out how we can support book based research with ebooks. One of the more interesting results of a recent snapshot of users of print books, i.e. patron checkouts at UNC Charlotte provided a first in my career. The number of circulations from faculty were larger than circulations from undergraduate students for a one month snapshot. This is unprecedented in all the many snapshots and studys of book circulation I’ve done over my career. Because there are so many more students than faculty at every university I’ve been at in the last 25 or so years, I’ve been able to investigate usage patterns by patron category and faculty were the minority users. Not here, not now. If this trend were to be checked by other university libraries and supported, then we are in a different era from even 15 years ago when I did such studies at Lousiana State University. And that has major implications for the types of ebooks we focus on, and the usability features, and of course the longevity of such material. I’d be interested if you have any data on current patron usage of print books. And of course I’d be even more interested if someone figured out how to parse undergraduate use from faculty use in ebooks too. A simple survey check box could be enough to find out if patron usage patterns in ebook usage are the same as print book usage. And as a note, it would be very helpful if COUNTER standardized ebook stats. I for one desparately want ebook stats broken down by LC classification!( and date and publisher, course..) Regards: Chuck Hamaker

  • Apr 4, 2012, 7:31 PM

I am a grad student and have struggled with the mounds of paper and books I have growing all around me. Until I got an Android pad (Asus Transformer to be exact). Kindle has an app that allows me to touch to highlight or make notes (I use my actual Kindle to read for pleasure). I can access my texts and notes from the cloud, from my tablet, my Kindle and from my phone if needed. That’s portability that doesn’t break my back! I also use another app called ezPDF reader that has the same touch to highlight or note function as well as the ability to write free hand on the PDF. My pad stands in for a second monitor which is great for writing papers. I still print anything that has been scanned from a hard copy (like chapters) and buy or check out certain books I believe I’ll cite a lot because of the issues with pagination on the Kindle (but not a problem for the PDFs). Actually, I have 4 ebook apps (Amazon, B & N, Google, and Indie Bound), two magazine apps, one comics reader, two newsfeeders (where I read this article), and an electronic dictionary. I can change my keyboard language into any number of other languages (I use Spanish regularly) and with dropbox can keep all of my most important files at hand on something that weighs less than a pound. My back appreciates my purchase of tablet and I appreciate the new versatility I have at my fingertips. I even used an ebook to teach my class last semester because I stepped in at the last minute and wanted to give the students quick and easy access to the text. I love books, but after moving boxes and boxes of books for years, I’m ready to downsize. Having all of my text with me on a single device when I do field work next year will be a great advantage.

  • Deon Claiborne
  • Apr 5, 2012, 9:46 AM

There’s some good thinking by Ted Nelson (known for coining the word ‘hypertext’), online and in his book _Literary Machines_ on the required affordances for intellectual work. Doug Englebarts ideas for augmenting human intellect are relevant. Both hark back to an Atlantic article by Vannevar Bush called “How We May Think”. All of this work is decades old– but well worth looking at before setting off to reinvent the flat tyre.

ePub, used by a most ebook readers (but not the kindle, unfortunately), is an open standard based on web standards. There’s really not a large number of competing formats. DRM is more of an issue in preventing the reading of epubs on multiple devices.

Using the floor for piles of paper is just an interface problem– getting a useable map for what you want to keep in mind, suited to the size of display/s you’re using. The notion that computers should recreate paper (word processors, PDF, wysiwyg), with all it’s limitations, has held these developments back.

You’re correct that so far annotation support is relatively poor. Bush and Nelson’s ideas are much richer. Keeping annotations with the file, as when marking up PDFs is a mistake– I require a searchable web of my own annotations and those of others with whom I’ve agreed to share. The annotations need to point back to a permantly available version of the text I annotated– but subsequent revisions of that text should also be available. My annotations should be first class citizens of this textual web– able to be read and annotated again in turn. And so on. much of this flies against the notion of the fixed book, and some is hampered by the unbrilliant design of the web itself (we can’t afford links to things we care about to change).

I don’t see the interests of publishers as at all important. The whole issue of who pays who for what set of limited rights just gets in the way of sharing ideas. Nelson has some ideas about micropayments here, rewarding authors based on usage. Publishers are destined to be service providers, not owners of the rights to texts created by other people.

  • Gregor McNish (@eclectics)
  • Apr 6, 2012, 9:11 PM

I’m not sure I buy the limitations of ebooks you’ve listed as actual limitations of the ebook itself. You said “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.” No, it’s not but it’s not comparing print and e. It’s comparing size of interface/workspace. When using print, we all realize that having more physical space to spread everything out is better but how come we expect to be able to do the same or more on the tiny screen of a laptop or even an iphone? When I hear complaints about ebooks, it’s either something like this where the user isn’t bringing the equivalent print expectations to the e-table or expected “growing pains”.

I do agree with your point that “we need to move to a meta-service.”

  • Matthew Thomas
  • Apr 9, 2012, 11:21 AM

I recently wrote a blog post on students’ attitudes towards digital textbooks. See Instructors report mixed results on student satisfaction with using e-textbooks. Students like the option of purchasing a required textbook in either print or electronic format, but left to decide on their own, many still select the print textbook. However, this decision can be swayed if the instructor shows the class the e-textbook on an electronic device.
What students generally dislike about e-textbooks is the perceived monotony of reading on an electronic device and poor functionality of the e-reader. Both will strongly dictate whether the student will abandon the digital book for the print copy. Students who have no choice but to acquire the e-textbook generally report less satisfaction with the course.

  • Liz Lorbeer
  • Apr 13, 2012, 3:06 PM

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