By Karen Coyle 

Column: Managing Technology 

PREPRINT. Published in Journal of Academic Librarianship v. 34 n. 2, March 2008, pp. 160-162 

Two events in 2007 re-awakened the interest in -- and the questions about -- reading in the electronic age. The first was a study released by the National Endowment for the Arts called "To Read or Not to Read." The report shows that there is a marked decline in both book reading as an activity and of "reading for pleasure." Interviewees were asked about the time spent reading books and reading literature. The study found that for students, reading was mainly in support of classroom and homework requirements, and that often reading was done alongside another activity; that reading "competes with other media" for the attention of the reader. Those other media include television, music, doing homework on the computer, and e-mailing.

The other event was the announcement of Amazon's e-book reader, the Kindle. The Kindle is the latest in a rather long line of e-book readers, none of which has been a market success. Amazon's product makes use of a new display technology call "e-ink." Unlike most screen technology, e-ink is not made visible by back-lighting. Instead, e-ink is a thin film with tiny capsules that change from white to black when exposed to an electric field. It is like having a piece of paper that can be written, erased and re-written an unlimited number of times. Like paper it is thin and flexible; unlike paper it needs to be incorporated into a device that has the hardware and software to power the display. Ironically, this flexible display may allow us to return to the scroll format, or at least in part. One company, Polymer Vision, has recently produced a display device in which the flexible display rolls up into a small, hand-held device, and is pulled out ("unrolled") to be viewed. This has the potential to break the current logjam between the desire for a small device and the desire for a page-sized screen.

Although the Amazon Kindle got a great deal of press, earlier in 2007 the Sony Corporation also produced a device using e-ink technology, the Sony Reader. Even less well-known are the e-ink-based e-book reader from China, Jinke Hanlin and the iLiad by iRex in the Netherlands. The appearance of these new devices based on the e-ink screen technology indicates that at least some marketers assume that the screen technology has been the barrier to the acceptance of reading books on a device. Although reviewers have praised the e-ink screen, it isn't clear that this technology will be the one to open the e-book market to a wider customer base.

What is clear, however, is that we need a solution to the problem of reading electronic texts. The amount of material produced in electronic formats each day is absolutely stunning. All of this would just be another business page story if it weren't for the fact that academic libraries, in partnership with Google, Microsoft, and others, are currently engaged in the mass digitization of their book collections. If we truly believe Ranganathan's first law of library science, that "Books are for use," then we have to ask ourselves how the digitized books will be used, and in particular how – or perhaps if – they will be read.  We are collecting materials in electronic format and digitizing books without having a clear idea of how they will be used.

Technology and Reading  

For those of us who spend many hours a day online, it comes as a bit of a surprise that online activities like e-mail or doing homework on the computer are not considered reading in the NEA study. Even more importantly, they are consider "not reading," that is, activities that distract one from reading. I would not be so bold to assert that time spent reading news, blogs, or journal articles online compares favorably to the reading of novels or book-length works non-fiction. It seems unhelpful, however, to completely ignore the fact that many people, of all ages, today spend a great deal of time exchanging textual messages in digital formats or reading works, albeit short works, that once were available only on paper.  That said, it is common wisdom that most people prefer to print out texts of considerable length so they can be read offline and off the screen. We don't know what that length is, but it is my guess that the average academic journal article fits that bill. If most of us won't read an article on the screen, clearly book-length texts are far too long for reading on the computer screen.

The NEA study posited new technologies as antagonists to reading, while Amazon and others are trying to use new technology in the service of reading. There is no question that technology has an effect on how and what we read, although this is nothing new. Reading changed dramatically in the past as technologies like vellum, paper, and moveable type allowed the production of longer texts in smaller packages with improved readability. Yet the change from analog to digital technology has yet to produce the "killer app" that would convert book readers to e-book readers, much less tempt some individuals away from television or games.  

E-Books v. Digitized Books 

In today's academic libraries there are two predominant forms of electronic books: books that are digital texts, such as those available from publishers for online access, and scans or digital photographs of print books, such as those that are being digitized in library projects.  

An electronic book that is formatted for any of the above e-book reading devices or common e-book reading software (such as Mobipocket, Microsoft Reader, or eReader) is a text that has its structure rendered in a digital file. Electronic books have chapters and page numbers that can be used to navigate the text. Their text can be flowed onto different sized viewing areas and pages re-numbered accordingly. Fonts can often be modified either in size or by font type.

A digitized version of a book that is created with what is essentially photographic technology is a fairly good reproduction of the book consisting of digital pictures of the pages. Digitized books are most frequently made available as single page images online, or in Adobe PDF format for downloading. Another format, DjVU, delivers images that look very much like those in PDF but using a special compression algorithm that decreases the overall file size considerably. Users must have Java installed or must download DjVU software to view the images.

The photographically digitized book is poorly suited, however, to being rendered on a screen for reading. To begin with, there is no re-flowing of the text to accommodate the differences in viewing areas between different devices. This is especially obvious when digitized books are displayed on a computer screen. Books are generally oriented in what we call "portrait" mode (their height is greater than their width), and computer screens are in landscape mode (wider than they are high). When viewing a digitized book page on a computer screen, the page must be reduced to fit the height of the screen or the user must see only part of a page at a time. (Viewing is somewhat better on a tablet PC whose screen orientation can be rotated into portrait viewing.) 

There have been some experiments with presenting books online that imitate the act of using an actual book, mainly through animation techniques. One of these is the British Library's "Turning the Pages" program that uses Adobe Flash technology. These books are not ones that have been part of a mass digitization process but instead are highly curated items. Using the mouse the reader actually turns the pages on the screen, and animation makes this a highly life-like act. Using similar technology, the Internet Archive displays mass digitized books in its Flipbook format. An animated page viewer is also being used commercially to create brochures and magazines. This are good for viewing images and layout, but not necessarily for reading text. With all of these digitized formats the clarity of the text displays are far from the crisp ink-on-paper experience, and actual reading of text is considerably more difficult.

More Than a Book 

Studies done of e-book use have given us some idea of what users want in a readable electronic text. To begin with, there are aspects of a text on paper that many readers do not want to give up. High on the list of these is the visual clue of where one is in the text. The mere act of holding a print book open lets you know how far along you are. Other print book features that users like are the ability to dog-ear pages (which feels less sinful when done electronically), and to make notes in the margins. Many e-book applications have implemented these features in their viewing software. 

The most important aspect for usability, however, seems to be portability. When e-book nay-sayers bring out the old chestnut "I don't like reading on a screen," I interpret that as being "I don't want to sit at my desk reading on the computer screen." Most of us actually do a lot of reading on a screen, both while receiving content and while writing our own texts, but this kind of reading also feels like work, not pleasure. To read for enjoyment, and to read for sustained periods of time, we want to be comfortably seated, feet up, and uninterrupted. I will stick my neck out and say that the reading device must be light weight, it must not require wires or other physically annoying characteristics (overheating, noise, a display that flickers, or pages that turn too slowly), and it simply has to work. A reading device that crashes or fails in any way, regardless of its bells and whistles (otherwise known as “affordances” to the user interface gurus) will be greatly inferior to the paper book. 

Being book-like is not enough, however. We (rightfully) expect new technology to give us more than the old technology it is replacing. E-books can be linked to dictionaries, or can launch web searches. They can interact with citation software. They can include sounds and animation. Most e-books today do not, however, go beyond being a simple electronic version of the printed book. That just may not be enough. 

Why E-Books Fail 

The problem with electronic books is not that they are electronic, but that all of our attempts have been to render the print book electronically rather than developing a new technology that facilitates reading. In the first e-book wave in the late 1990's, the famed user interface guru Jakob Nielsen argued that our attempts to create a digital version of the book that looks like a book is wrong-headed.  

"The basic problem is that the book is too strong a metaphor: it tends to lead designers and writers astray. Electronic text should be based on interaction, hypertext linking, navigation, search, and connections to online services and continuous updates. These new-media capabilities allow for much more powerful user experiences than a linear flow of text. Linear text may have ruled the world since the Egyptians learned to produce arbitrarily long scrolls of papyrus, but it's time to end this tradition. Nobody has time to read long reports any more: information must be dynamic and under direct control of the reader, not the author." [Nielsen, Jakob. Electronic Books - A Bad Idea.]

I tend to agree with Nielsen (although I'm not entirely sure that "no one has time to read long reports any more"). The paper book is a perfectly good technology for reading, and it would be hard to improve upon it as a reading device. What the paper book cannot do is interact dynamically with other texts. Unfortunately, the digitized books that libraries are creating are no more interactive than their paper counterparts, and also have poor usability compared to the paper book.  

What we are lacking is a new way to work with information rich texts; a way that enhances their value in relation to each other by taking advantage of the relationships between the ideas within them. Until we develop this technology, book-length electronic texts will get used only by the most ardent researcher.  

The question we need to ask ourselves, especially in light of the new e-book devices, is what technology would make the reading of electronic books appealing? It would be important to have at least a tentative answer to this question before we commit fully to the digitization of library resources.  

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