Monday, June 23, 2008

E-Books: Still not ready for prime time?

In a May 2008 American Libraries article titled The Elusive E-Book, author Stephen Sottong argues that aside from reference titles, e-books (the kind meant to be read off a computer screen) have no future for the foreseeable future.

Part of his pessimism comes from experience:

My own experience with computer- based subscription services was as a librarian in the California State University (CSU) system. From March to December 2001, all but CSU's smallest campus participated in a pilot e-book project with NetLibrary. In that time, there were 17,473 accesses to the e-hook collection. If that number were annualized and each access assumed to be from a different person, then, at best, only 5% of students and faculty would have accessed the e-book collection--and many of the accesses during this period were actually by librarians demonstrating the new system. Each access during the pilot project cost the university more than $5, This is not to fault CSU's implementation of e-books. The trial was well-planned, with most campuses integrating NetLibrary's e-books into their catalogs and providing a spate of publicity for the new service. Our students--who should be a group that readily accepts new technologies--just preferred paper books.

And part comes from ergonomics analysis that seems to indicate that reading off a screen is intrinsically harder than from a book:
Because both convergence and accommodation occur at a further distance when looking straight forward, monitors must be placed further from the eye. Since monitor resolution is less than print, the text on a monitor must be made larger to convey the same amount of information, which means that the width of the monitor must be wider to handle the same amount of text. As the eyes cans across text on a monitor, the distance between the eye and the monitor varies: closer to the eye in the center, farther at the edges. This means that the eye must constantly adjust for both accommodation and convergence as each line of text is read.

The consequences of these differences are enormous. Most computer users try to keep their eyes in the center of the screen, ignoring information at the edges. They skim text rather than read. When confronted with blocks of text longer than a couple screens, users either print the text or ignore it. This strategy works well with journal articles: Users can skim for relevant entries and print the ones they want to peruse in detail. But it doesn't work for book-length manuscripts or other lengthy text forms that require detailed reading.

My spouse likes to use our XO Laptop to read fanfic stories and it seems to work for her. But stories are sort of like journal articles. I've tried using our XO Laptop for reading some book length works and I can attest that it's a more tiring experience. Although my main issue with using my laptop is that there isn't a good way to bookmark your place. I have to make a notation in another file or on paper to get back to the page where I left off. On the other hand, the laptop is a great and comfortable tool for getting through my personal RSS feeds.

Does your library offer e-books for reading? What has your experience been with them? Are any more popular than others?

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Cited Article:

Title: The Elusive E-book.
Authors: Sottong, Stephen
Source: American Libraries; May2008, Vol. 39 Issue 5, p44-48, 5p, 1bw
Full text via Digital Pipeline: http://search.ebscohost.com/login.aspx?direct=true&db=f5h&AN=31872775&site=ehost-live

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2 Comments:

Blogger Michael said...

I would be surprised if there is a single library in Alaska that gave the (non-reference) e-book user experience more than a passing glance before investing in them. E-books, reference desk chat clients, institutional podcasting, digital repositories, user-driven wiki’s: these applications work as advertised. What they do not do is work for the end-user. Oops. Sure, they get attention from the geek minority while shiny and new, but I challenge any Alaska library to show persistent patterns of use by more than the 5% reported in this article.

When hip, new information technology passes within shouting distance of our helping profession’s mission to set information flowing freely, librarians seem to get stars in their eyes. They proceed with little or no investigation into the fundamentals of the user experience. If you are a library planner you should have a copy of something by Jakob Nielsen close at hand, and be familiar with at least a few of the concepts and challenges Denise Covey discusses in “Usage and Usability Assessment : Library Practices and Concerns.” On the other hand, you could just fly blind. Sometimes that works. And you have plenty of time and money to be the guinea pig for the rest of us, right?

2:13 PM  
Blogger Freya said...

My father was just visiting, and I was reminded how much he enjoys reading e-books...on his cell phone. The print is tiny, but the resolution is good, and I would imagine that the small screen size would alleviate most of the issues brought up by the original post here.

However, he buys his e-books, despite having a librarian daughter and using his local library for other services. Why? I think it's because e-book services are a pain to use. I agree with Michael's comment, that we should focus on user experiences when looking at new technologies. Sometimes this requires a trial, in order to determine what that experience is. Trials showed us that Overdrive was very popular, and trials showed us that some other services were not so much. I think that the key is to pay attention to what the trial tells us, rather than being so invested in a new product that we can't give it up if it doesn't meet expectations.

4:09 PM  

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