As an ex-librarian I’ve been around ebooks for years, but this week marked only the second time I’ve sat down to read one cover to cover. Last time was about three years ago when I was testing out a Sony eReader and I read The Importance of Being Earnest. It was during a cold snap when I was travelling to work on the train a lot, and so I can recall my fingers freezing on the brushed metal case. The book wasn’t too hard to read, although it’s one of my favourite plays and I’ve read it a few times before in print, so probably not a fair example. It did convince me though that eReaders are all well and good, but I’m not cock-a-hoop over them – why by a single function item that locks down all your purchased works with DRM? Seems a bit mad to me, plus I do a lot of reading (for pleasure) in the bath and I just know until they invent one that floats I better not think about it.
This week though I finally had to bite the bullet and sit down and read an entire academic work (all 500 odd pages) in an eBook format. Benkler’s Wealth of Networks – an appropriate one to start with I thought. I’ve actually put off reading this one for a couple of weeks because it was only available in an eBook format. When I read, even when sitting at a desk, I like to change position every 15 minutes or so. As I was going to have to read this book off my LED screen in my PC room that wasn’t going to be an option. Score one point against the format, although I guess if i had a tablet that would be less of an issue. But I don’t have a tablet, and hence by only having this book available to me electronically, I feel I’m at a disadvantage to start with. I’d be a liar if I didn’t say I do spend a lot of time in front of my PC screens (yes, two of them) at home, and previously at the office; but if I ever wanted to read a document of any size I’d run off a print copy.
However, given the ash deforestation in the news currently I think it behoves me to try and acid killing any more trees than I have to for this PhD so I resolved to read it on screen. The book happened to be in the ebrary format via the library catalogue Now personally I’d much rather have the book in a nice compact PDF format, which allows me to maximise the screen – rather than reading it in the rather clunky looking e-reader webpage*. But no, the publisher and suppliers must use their restrictive DRM formats to stop me walking off and actually using the book in a more user-friendly manner. As Lessig (Code 2.0, 2006) said “We are entering a time when copyright is more effectively protected than at any time since Gutenberg.” Oh and did I mention the DRM would allow me to download a local copy…40 pages at a time to read or print. I didn’t fancy working through the book in such a staccato fashion, so I concluded I’d have to make use of the ebrary screen shown here.
The first thing that struck me was the waste of screen real estate – there are three panes that make up the reader screen, but only the one on the far left is for the book; and it only allows you to read it a page at time. Yes, that’s a naturalistic HCI isn’t it (heavy sarcasm). The natural magnification sadly doesn;t fill the pane, but a quick fiddle with the buttons on the top of the screen sorted that out (although someone seemed to have forgotten to give them mouse-over information, which was another frustration)
The other two panes are the chapters so I could skip about the book or in my case work out how many more pages I had to read. I confess I did use them a couple of times when I came back to the book, but only because I couldn’t use a post-it to mark my place like a normal book. Nor indeed flick through the pages quickly to give myself an idea of how long the work was. It’s strange to say that lacking the natural human-book interaction of the weight and thickness, that it actually made me feel like the book would go on forever; and that did impact on my ability to read it – it distracted me from the wheft and flow of the narrative to the detriment of my engagement with the text.
The other pane at the bottom is the bibliographic details. I wonder what bright spark designing this thought “No one wants to see both pages at once, but I bet EVERYONE wants to see the Dewey Decimal number for their entire reading experience“. No wait, I know what bright spark – it was a bloody librarian – this is exactly the sort of wrong headed thinking that some of them go for** (sigh). Considering the user experience first folks might be a better plan. I was pleased to see a download option (until I spotted the 40 page limit) and yes the ability to add notes or have a Dalek read it aloud to me sounded attractive However, the read aloud function is crippled in that you have to select the text, a page at a time, and then command it to speak. This doesn’t add a lot of functionality from my POV to be honest, although I’m sure some readers will like it. As for annotating the text and adding notes to it; to be honest I’d much rather keep my notes in my own cloud and physical locations rather risk having some proprietary system locking them away from me due to a license expiration.
However, I did espy an option to launch an ebrary reader which I hoped would be somewhat similar to a PDF reader (and perhaps offer some more functionality like double page spreads perhaps?). I clicked the button and had a polite dialogue button tell me to be patient and stop worrying. Okay it didn’t quite say that, but the implication of the dialogue box was “You have pressed a button. Now don’t you worry your pretty little head about it, we’ll launch the reader soon…” And then it announced that my version of Java for Chrome wasn’t up to date.
Fast forward 15 minutes while I fiddle about installing the ereader software plug in, then downloading and installing Java and try again; only to get the same “Out of Java error” message before closing the browser down, reopening it and finally getting the reader to open. Huzzah, that’s 15 minutes of HCI Epic Fail from my perspective as a researcher. 15 minutes during which I could have been reading the book, rather than sitting at my PC fuming quietly. Print 1: eBooks 0. of course perhaps it works fine if I was using Internet Exploder, like most universities ICT depts still seem to assume but no, thank you, if you think I’m back to browsing the internet with stone knives and bear skins I’m afraid you’re very much mistaken.
However, finally having got the pop-up reader running and the book visible I started to read. Now foolishly I thought the time it took the reader to launch – more than couple of seconds/less than a minute – was the entire book downloading into the proprietary reader. Nope, turns out that each page loads separately when I press the arrow key or click the next page button. And there’s a pause of two or three seconds on average (sometimes longer, never less) for them to load. And this totally breaks the natural rhythm of reading. So much so that I lost count of the number of times I had to flick back to the previous page (thankfully still in memory) to work out what had just been said mid sentence. This really, seriously impacted on the experience of reading the book; significantly damaging the readability in my opinion. On top of this there’s the delight of reading 500 glowing pages and the effect it has on the eyes. I can happily read hundreds of pages in print during a day, but on-screen it is just so much more a fatiguing experience. But I am proud to say I did manage to finish the book!
Now my experience doesn’t mean that eBooks as a whole are a failure, far from it. What I’m trying to point out from this researcher’s perspective is that the systems that publishers and suppliers tie poor libraries into are a poor substitute for the physical book experience. It has certainly reinforced my reluctance to put an eReader anywhere on Santa’s list this or any year. I’m not sure if there’s an easy solution, and doubtless some book suppliers will say “But we wouldn’t expect anyone to read a whole eBook!”. That might be acceptable practice for undergrads and taught post-graduates cherry picking the odd chapter here and there, but we researchers do need to read entire books. And for us I strongly believe that as libraries increasingly come to rely on eBooks as the solution to shelving space and staffing resources, that it is researchers who will suffer the most.
Ebooks are the future? Pah, not for this reader. And so with a heavy heart and deep sigh I glance at my planned reading for the next week to see another work is eBook only. It think I might need to leave it a week to allow my eyes time to recover…
But that’s my experience. Maybe I’ll find it easier with time as I learn to adapt to reading more online, but I certainly have my doubts. I’d love to hear from any one out there who’s found a good coping mechanism for enforced lengthy sessions reading eBooks that doesn’t end in your eyes melting!
*And actually I discovered late today that Benkler has made a PDF of this book available – gah!
**Thankfully not many, but enough in strategically significant places sadly.