BY NICO VREELAND
I’ve spent the past week of my life working on a lit paper, channeling my inner Teddy KGB, and wishing I had alligator blood. I logged my share of hours in the stacks, but at least half the sources I used were digital. Most of them were articles from JSTOR or Project MUSE, which came in unhelpfully function-free PDFs. Along the way, though, I found a few entire books available as digital texts, which were routed through my college library’s website, and supplied by ebrary.
I printed out every page I read, including most of one complete book, a book from which I wound up pulling maybe three quotes. Despite my belief that ebooks are the future, and despite some fairly nifty features in the ebrary reader, I didn’t even consider reading these pages off my computer.
And, to be honest, I’m not entirely sure why. But I’ve got a theory.
The PDFs were nearly useless on the screen. I couldn’t even properly annotate them, let alone copy text from them to quote in my paper. PDFs clearly have a long way to go before they’re comfortably usable by students. I hope the people at Northwest Missouri State came up with something better.
The ebrary books had much more promise. The ebrary Reader program had the power to look up definitions or explanations of words, translate words into any of ten languages, locate maps of places, and find biographies of people mentioned. OK, so each of those functions involves ebrary Reader simply connecting to your web browser and letting the Internet do the heavy lifting, but it can also annotate and allows you to copy text, which are the only two features I actually care about. And you can search within a book, a feature I found helpful when I needed to look for the phrase “death drive” in The Legend of Freud (it’s just as good as it sounds).
Even with a suite of arguably helpful functions, I barely gave it half a chance before I was printing out hundreds of pages.
Partially, this is a hardware problem. I’m used to more than underlining or highlighting texts. I draw asterisks and question marks, I write notes to myself, I draw lines between passages. I like to create a fair amount of marginalia, and without a next-generation ereader—or a tablet PC—this etextbook thing simply won’t be the same as the paper version.
However, I’m willing to admit that a lot of that is conditioning. I could probably get away with highlighting in the three colors offered by ebrary’s Reader program, and writing notes of more substance elsewhere. I also take a certain sick pleasure in spreading my articles and books across an entire table at the library during the runup to a deadline. That, too, could probably be digitized without wreaking havoc on my production.
The real problem here is that the transition isn’t easy enough. I had some initial trouble getting into ebrary’s pointlessly proprietary software, and more when I tried to do anything special, like highlighting. I had to sign up for an ebrary account (even though JSTOR and other databases always somehow know I got to them through my school library’s website). There was even a ridiculous IP requirement that seemed to imply that I had to be physically within range of my school’s wireless Internet before ebrary would trust that I was a student.
None of these things on its own is life-threatening. But as someone used to annotating by hand, I have to be gently eased into the world of using ebooks for academic work. I’m about a “medium” on the Luddite scale—somewhere between Bill O’Reilly and David Pogue–there are a lot of people out there who won’t have quite as hard a time as I do. However, Apple has shown that intuitivity is the path to ubiquity.
There’s a lot of energy being expended on making ebooks and ereaders as visually similar to paper books as possible. After the past week, I understand that effort better than I ever have before. But, making ebooks as intuitive as possible will take us a lot further, I think, toward the Great eReader Adoption. Whether or not ereading is a new way of interacting with texts (and i think it is), reading digital books has to be easier to do in the ways that people read paper books, and it’s simply not there yet.