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Ebook-ery

Ebooks (and more particularly e-journals) seem to need plenty of different affordances to be really useful as replacements for print versions.

I’ve been getting a lot of reading done in the west of Ireland, some of which has been work-related and some of which has included looking through electronic journals (and art e-journals, in Linda’s case). It really highlights the benefits and drawbacks of electronic publishing.

First the benefits:

  • Searchability. Being able to search both an individual issue and all a journal’s issues is fantastic both when looking for broad background and when trying to find detail.
  • Access. Saving a PDF locally (or, better, in Evernote) reduces repeated searching, allows tagging, and facilitates off-line reading. No matter what people have us believe, there are times when we’re off-line either by accident (on “soft” days my mi-fi modem stops working) or design (driving, resting, on the train). And this in turn means I can carry a vast range if material with me wherever I go: far more than in print form.
  • Availability. Pretty much anything available anywhere in the scientific literature is directly accessible from my study in the wilds of Sligo.

    All well-known benefits, of course. The disadvantages only really become apparent in special circumstances:

      • Limited browsing. Searching is great when you can frame the search terms: otherwise it’s a positive impediment.
      • Digital restrictions. Some publishers go through hoops to make sure you can’t disseminate their material — embedding a Flash-based reader into a web page to prevent local storage is my current bugbear — and so obviate the benefits of access and tagging.

      There’s no sense of these deficiencies outweighing the benefits of searching, access and availability, of course, but it does suggest that e-journals especially need multiple affordances in their interfaces. The problem does seem to be uniquely for journals, too: books intended to be read in toto work very well in the main when converted to ebooks, but collections intended to be dipped into convert less well.

      Perhaps the problem is the need to be overly precise. Searching works well enough, but only if done at the appropriate granularity, and only if the content is tagged according to the way you think about it, and in fact only if matches the way you think about it at the moment. This last problem, conceptual drift, makes long-term tagging painfully fragile: older content relating to slim touch-screen computers will not be not tagged ipad or tablet computer, for example, and so will be essentially invisible to a modern searcher.

      Serendipitous finding of material seems to work better in traditional linear form, where one can browse and dip-in as required. Zinio allows this kind of interaction on tablets — I’ve started taking The Economist this way rather than in print. Of course you’re then trapped by digital restrictions, being force to read within the confines of a particular application that doesn’t support user-provided hyperlinking, tagging, annotation or any of the other good things that come with ebooks.

      I suppose all this is an argument for open ebook and e-journal publishing, using open standards that can be linked to, tagged and manipulated within different applications, and that comes in both “collected” (browsable) and “individual”(searchable) forms to facilitate the different modes of access that seem to be suggested by different user tasks.


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