eBooks: Neither e-anything, nor really books.

Gordon gave me the idea for this post, while venting his frustrations about eBooks (someone needs to tell me whether that capitalization ought to be there — I never really know). His specific irritation was that he could not print more than four pages, thus meaning that the e-version of a real book one of his lecturers has set as required reading does not do the same job as a physical copy would (and the physical copy is on back order). What, asks Gordon, is the point of these things?

To me, it seems that eBooks are a bit like Wikipedia (only more authoritative): They’re good for getting short sharp bursts of information while you’re already online. My library’s subscription to Safari Techbooks saved me no small amount of time during the tail end of my masters; instead of having a recall war with someone over the only book our library had on the (then relatively new) DHTML, I was able to read about it, with code examples, online and just in time. EBooks are probably good for all sorts of things like that, from physics equations to Shakespeare’s 116th sonnet. If you want to read ‘King Lear’ or ‘A Brief History of Time’, though, forget it. Buy the book, if you can;t get it from your library.

The (apparent) reason why eBooks are so awful seems to be to me a triumph of copyright over common sense. Copyright concerns seem to be the reason why eBooks are neither fish nor fowl, neither electronic nor book. eBooks, at least the ones I have seen at Swinburne, are printed in a PDF-like format, making for worse on-screen reading, longer load times, and a distinct lack of the rich hyperlinking that adds value to online reference content. I can only think of 3 reasons why PDFs are being used here instead of natively online formats:

  • Because you can lock a PDF and prevent someone copying the text
  • Because the books are natively created in PDF-like form and the publisher sees no need to convert them
  • To present the Greek symbols so often found in mathematics textbooks.

The only reason of those, that is really good enough, is the last one, and we can only hope that text-presentation technologies catch up with need soon enough that we won’t be dependent on preformatted text for too much longer (yes, theoretically unicode can handle it, but too often web browsers fail to adequately interpret unicode, resulting in either garbled nonsense, or that little square box thing). Not only do eBooks fail at being electronic, though, they fail at being books. They can’t be read without a web connection, the amount you can print is dictated by an online publisher and embedded in the technology, rather than reflecting copyright law, and all the wonderful affordances of a regular book — annotating, falling open at a frequently used page, coming back to where you left off and prolonged comfortable reading — are not available.

Despite the poor usability and poor readability of online book, though, I think it is important that we continue to have the available. The web statistics show that eBooks are quite heavily used, and a recent survey of our students has demonstrated that they like and expect to be able to access their textbooks online. Are our eBooks popular because the next generation is different? Possibly. My guess, though, is that most students are using eBooks for reference, to avoid purchasing (or carrying about) hard copy textbooks. As for me? I’ll read more eBooks when the usability of the electronic interface, and the complete unwillingness on the part of publishers to publish in an online readable format changes.

Addendum 18-2-2008: My colleague Tony has made some excellent points in the comments on this post that need raising here: eBooks have a significant advantage over traditional books in storage space and price, and are a hugely valuable resource for distance students.  Not only that, but our eBook provider (EBL) is very generous in terms of the printing users are allowed — 20%, considerably more than copyright in Australia; it seems Swinburne users have been facing some technical hitches at our end in this regard.  Tony’s most important point, though, was one I missed because I am used to libraries (and I should have caught this): It is not necessarily easy to find a book on the shelves of a library, or find the right information in that book, so eBooks may have the advantage in this regard.  All these points are reasons to continue to purchase eBooks, but also to manage expectations about what they are, so their users get the most out of them and not the least.


6 Responses to “eBooks: Neither e-anything, nor really books.”

  1. 1 Woeful Wednesday, January 30, 2008 at 11:21 pm

    “They’re good for getting short sharp bursts of information”
    This pretty much sums it up…

  2. 2 AJ Thursday, January 31, 2008 at 1:44 am

    You failed to mention a key reason that publishers create ebooks in PDF – there is no other widely used format that maintains the layout and can include useful colour interiors (see: hi-res enough to view in a meaningful way).

    Also, an internet connection is needed for the initial download of any ebook, but the file can often be saved on the library patron or purchaser’s computer for future offline reference. Annotation is also possible.

    Your points are certainly valid – for your limited needs, an ebook, especially a PDF, may not be the best fit. However, you are missing out on the various other groups that ebooks serve well – homeschoolers, frequent travelers, those who require larger fonts, etc.

  3. 3 danamckay Thursday, January 31, 2008 at 8:11 am

    AJ, you make some very good points about the other groups for whom eBooks are useful. With the eBook service our library uses, however, you can’t save a whole book — only a small chunk of it at a time (and I believe this is fairly common). Your points about PDF and layout are also valid, but to me (and I am a usability specialist) those points don’t outweigh the usability problems with PDF.

  4. 4 Gordon Thursday, January 31, 2008 at 1:55 pm

    I can appreciate that their value lies in getting short sharp bursts of information. Unfortunately they are being promoted as being an alternative to the printed text, while clearly they are not. Not really an alternative either but the preferred option as stated in the Collection Development Policy:

    • “Swinburne Library prefers an electronic version of a monograph and will not acquire or retain printed versions where it has access to an electronic version of the edition”

    Most library users anticipate that an electronic book will offer them
    the same scope and access to information as a printed book and are disappointed and frustrated at the limited access available. The frustrated client yesterday commented that she felt that the electronic book in question was a “teaser” designed to get the user to purchase the book, much like the trailer of a feature film. Perhaps we need to take this on board in library instruction classes and explain their scope.

  5. 5 tony Tuesday, February 12, 2008 at 6:40 pm

    Hi Dana,
    I think ebooks will be sometimes better than a printed book and sometimes worse, depends on the person, the situation, the book, the time and place. Sometimes there’s a place for both.

    Most of our library’s ebooks have printing/copying restrictions, but they are quite a bit more generous than what is allowed under copyright. A lot don’t have any rights restrictions. I’d be interested to know if any restrict copying more than what’s allowed under copyright. For example, the 65,000 ebooks in our largest collection allow a user to print 20% of the pages in any ebook plus copy 5% of the pages – 25% in total. Under copyright fair dealing you can only copy 10%, so I think those restrictions are reasonable.

    The user experience can be less than wonderful in quite a lot of ebooks and I think we need to provide constructive feedback. But the user experience of getting a printed book from a library can be pretty bloody awful too. You have to physically get to the library, hopefully nobody else wants the book or you might be 15th in the hold queue, and hopefully it hasn’t gone missing. Hopefully the library actually has the book. Around 2/3 of our catalogue searches are from off campus so an ebook that can be delivered instantly is a pretty good user experience, and in that case much better than a printed book. Last year we instantly purchased and delivered ebooks to users on christmas day and new years day.

    The main thing ebooks do in a library is add a LOT more books at an affordable price. We now have 90-100,000 ebooks, growing at over 2000 a month. If we cancelled them all tomorrow and used the money to buy printed books we could maybe buy 3-4000 a year. There’s no way we could ever get the money to replace those 100,000 ebooks with print books, and even if we did, there’s nowhere to put them.

    Ebooks don’t replace print books. It’s a way to get a lot more books for our bucks, and a way to get books to our users who aren’t at the library and can’t get to one. So, I guess I’m saying it’s not all bad, and sometimes the situation with print books – especially access – isn’t so great either.

    Sorry for the long reply.

    ps: I’m surprised by the ebook policy Gordon mentions. It’s not what the library actually does, so I think someone needs to look into that.

  6. 6 tony Wednesday, February 13, 2008 at 8:26 am

    I miscalculated in the previous post. If we cancelled our 100,000 ebooks we could use the money to buy maybe 2500 print books.

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