Monday, July 15, 2013

E-books at the library: not only inconvenient, but un-scholarly

I have been fed up for some time with the inconvenient features of e-books owned by my university library. Now they are turning out to be anti-scholarly. In this post I will just vent about this a bit; there are some suggestions to more systematic (and better-informed) online posts below.

EMAIL #1, to my university library   ------------------------------------------------------------

 This is my venting about some things that really bug me about digital books.

First, I dislike digital books. For most books, I would MUCH rather have a physical book in my hands. I skim library books more than I read them completely, and skimming is much easier with a physical book than with a digital book. Perhaps if the software were better, this would be less of an irritation.

Second, E-brary is one of the worst programs I know of. First, it doesn’t work with Firefox. Second, when I use it with IE, it either stops working in a benign way (giving cryptic error messages), or else it hangs up, sometimes requiring restarting my computer. It has been quite a while since I have used E-brary, had it work properly, and exited properly. And third, the message “Starting the E-brary experience. Please wait” is one of the most annoying automated messages I know of. (it is an awful experience - please don't rub it in).

Third, and related. If these programs worked better, then digital books would be easier to stomach. What are some of the problems (not just E-brary, but most or all of the readers sued for digital books in the library):

  • It is hard to scroll from page to page with a small (laptop) screen. The page turn buttons are only at the top of the page, not the bottom. So one has to scroll down to see the entire page, then scroll up again to turn the page.
  •  Printing is very slow and awkward. This morning E-brary kept preventing me from printing 25 pages with a message saying I was not allowed to print more than 60 pages. I had to print to a pdf to get around that. And then it hung up. It never told me that it was printing, or had printed, the file. But later I found that the pdf had indeed been created.
You would think that with the advances in digital media and the convenience of pdfs, kindle books, and the like, that the software would be more convenient for the user. OK, I'm just being cranky here. But now the digital books in the library are coming up in a very unscholarly format. Here is today's cranky email:

EMAIL #2, To my university library -------------------------------------------------------------
I am consulting an electronic book, “Fanning the Sacred Flame: Mesoamerican Studies in honor of HB Nicholson” (Univ Press Colorado). It is an EBSCO e-book. The book is re-formatted for the electronic version, and as a result I can’t recover the page numbers for specific information I want to cite. Even more problematic is the fact that the “contents” is not an image of the table of contents from the book, but rather a clickable, reformatted page. This is a problem because I cannot recover the page numbers to cite an individual article. I can’t believe that publishing (abetted by libraries) is moving backwards like this. Is it no longer considered important that a reader be able to cite a specific page number in a book? In the continuing erosion of scholarly mechanics among students today, this is a big step backwards for teaching purposes, and a blow against scholarly quality and productivity.

There are many other issues surrounding digital books in libraries; check out some of these works:

E-books on fire: controversies surrounding ebooks in libraries

Problems with ebooks: suggestions for publishers

Ebooks and libraries: A stream of concerns

Libraries, patrons, and ebooks

And as long as I'm being cranky, I will suggest (in reference to the ebook Fanning the Sacred Flame) that if one wants to pay homage to a recently deceased scholar who had meticulous methods and scholarship (HB Nicholson), one should contribute a chapter that is not a decade out of date in its citations and scholarship (or, in at least one case, two decades out of date).

--Cranky in Tempe


Marcus said...

Hear hear,

It's not only the sloppiness of these systems, but I also think the brain just doesn't process information as well from working primarily behind one's computer. I recently moved back to paper and it increased my productivity considerably. I now only use my laptop for tracking down references and writing and keep my notes and thoughts in folders.

Your comment about the page numbers is right on. I feel it's almost like an invitation for making things up.

ianwjones said...

Definitely agreed. Having to click to "turn" pages is really irritating, especially because there's no real reason for it. EBL, at least, now lets you scroll through like Google Books.

I've also never understood why it is that it's perfectly fine for me to download a PDF of a journal article and keep it as long as I want, but I'm not to be trusted for more than a day with anything longer than 100 pages (unless it's published by Springer).

Haven't had the page number issue yet, but that sounds fun, too.

Jason Ur said...

Harvard has just gotten a subscription to Oxford Handbooks Online, which would be great but it HAS NO PAGE NUMBERS. Downloading the PDF of any given chapter doesn't give you the PDF of the printed version, but a print-out of the page number-less HTML version, with the added bonus of tiny and illegible figures. Without page numbers, I'd still have to go to the library to use the book or chapter. I recommended to our librarian that they discontinue it immediately; it's not formatted to be an academic resource.

That said, I have no problem reading on screens.

Humberto said...