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why the new BL e-books announcement is important

08 Feb

It seems to me an obvious but oddly under-invested-in truththat the nicer something is to engage with, the greater the number of people who will engage with it. e-Books have suffered perennially from under-engagement – in the academic library, we’ve scratched our heads as e-journal usage stats go off the chart, but people continue to reserve physical books and wait for them to come back from loan, rather than consult the e-book online.

e-Books haven’t traditionally been that nice to engage with. They often lack some of the utility of e-journals and simply don’t work as well, plus they suffer from the way we take in information these days. e-Journals are perfect for power-browsing for certain targeted pieces of information, but books still seem like a greater undertaking that doesn’t suit on-screen reading. Plus, e-books suffer from comparisons withthe real paper thing: people ‘love the smell / feel / look’ of books, and can be left cold by the somewhat impersonal e-book, with it’s dark size 12 Arial font on a plain white screen.

We’re only 5 weeks into 2010 and already some barriers to e-book usability, engageability, seem to be dropping like dominoes – the very barriers which prevent a full-scale embracing of the format. Preceded by the Kindle and Nook, which invested in the format and unshackled the reader from the computer screen, the iPad has launched with its iBook store. There have been an enormous number of articles comparing the relative merits of the platforms and I don’t want to rehash them here: suffice to say, the Kindle is better for long bouts of reading (having electronic ink as opposed to a back-lit screen) but really the iPad is sexier in every other way. It costs much the same as a Kindle, you can enjoy the touch-screen page turning experience, and, in any case, you can download the Kindle app for it… e-Books have become more pleasant to engage with at a stroke. They look nicer (full colour, for a start), they are now tactile to a certain extent, and the iBook store looks really tidy. Little things, like the attractive looking virtual ‘shelf’ with colour renditions of your purchased books on, make a big difference. If Apple has proved anything, it is that they can take existing concepts and make them so much more engaging that they suddenly seem vital to own – remember, there were loads of MP3 players around before the iPodcame along and changed the method of engagement, creating a Hoover-with-vacuum-cleaners-like synonymity (is that a word?) with the medium.

Lots of people have argued that the iPad doesn’t do all that it should do, that it is a let-down, the lack of multi-tasking limits it and so on. But this is the first iteration. It’ll get better. Most people who’ve used one say they struggle to convey just how nice the things are to hold and to interact with, so once we’ve had a go we’ll all want one. And by the time the all-improved second or third generation versions come out, they’ll be irresistible – or if they are resistible, it’s because an iPad inspired rival does the same job even better. So what if it doesn’t have a camera? It will do eventually, and in the meantime it’ll change the way we engage with content. Either way, it’s all good news for e-books.

People are often polarised about new technology – either it’s ‘THE FUTURE IS HERE RIGHT NOW’ or it’s ‘this will never catch on’. In reality, it is often a mixture of both. The iPad won’t completely revolutionise the world, but it’s the latest significant step in an ongoing process of change. I think it’s probably a very significant step, because Apple traditionally find ways to make people engage withthe same old content in new and exciting ways that somehow render the old ones a little too dull to bother with.

So, how does this all relate to the BL’s e-books announcement? The British Library have announced they are shortly to offer free e-books, of out-0f-copyright works, staring in the Spring. You can read more about it here. The way in which they are digitising is significant, for a number of reasons. The difference between the BL’s new e-book scheme and many existing digitisation projects is that the BL is physically digitising its own original 18th and 19thcentury texts. So rather than a version of Pride & Prejudice that looks not entirely unlike this blog post does, it’ll be scanned from the original copy, with all that implies – original typeface, original illustrations, perhaps even yellower paper… As mentioned above, I think a lot of people have a problem with e-books because they are nothing like the physical experience of reading a proper book. It’s not a problem to anyone born this century – they’ll happily read anything in on a screen because it is convenient, just in the same way that we accept the fact that MP3 is a rubbish file-format and doesn’t sound as good as vinyl, because that too is convenient - but for the rest of us the legacy of the printed word is very powerful. So the BL’s digitisation of the whole object, rather than just the contents of the object – their decision to reproduce the original book, rather than just gives us the words – is yet another step towards engaging the e-book sceptics. 2 months ago, your e-book choice consisted largely of reading Austen (or whatever) on a slightly dated looking big white device with keys on it, and no colour on the screen, and just the words of the original migrated to the new format. As of the Spring, you’ll be able to read facsimiles of the original first edition in full colour on a device which costs much the same as the ugly white thing, looks and feels fantastic, and allows you to listen to music, surf the net, edit Word docs and watch TV when you’re finished! That’s a big change in a small amount of time – e-books have gone from rather grey and utilitarian to attractive and tactile. And I think that’ll make a big change to the way people engage with them. Which is great!

This ties in with some of the issues we’re thinking about with the LIFE-SHARE Project I’m working on. With digital preservation, it may not be enough to just preserve the content of something – when migrating format, we need to preserve everything about the object so it really can be a surrogate copy; the contents pages and appendices and printing notes and the type-set and the blank pages before and after the main body of the text, all that stuff. In years to come, I think people will thank the BL for faithfully reproducing the old books, and giving readers who like the new technology a more authentic reading experience…

- thewikiman

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Comments
  • Ned Potter February 8, 2010 at 7:41 PM

    Why the new BL e-book announcement is important… Just blogged: http://thewikiman.org/blog/?p=468

  • Simon Barron February 8, 2010 at 8:54 PM

    A big thing that makes print books so great is the diversity between them. This translates into a disadvantage for ebooks which tend to have a uniform look and feel: reading a classic like Beowulf is superficially no different from reading a modern work like Twilight. Whereas with print books, those two works would offer completely different sensory experiences.

    It’s ‘judging a book by its cover’ of the worst kind but it goes a long way to making the reading experience pleasurable.

  • thewikiman February 9, 2010 at 9:47 AM

    Yes I agree, it is an important thing. And it can’t be fully replicated – but that’s why I think scanning first editions and the like, rather than completely homogenising all e-books, is a good start towards making the sensory experience a little more diverse…

  • David Tanner February 9, 2010 at 4:37 PM

    Check out why the new BL e-books announcement is important @ http://thewikiman.org/blog/?p=468

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