Saturday, June 5, 2010

E-Readers: The Device Versus the Book

When it comes to meeting the demands of academic reading, today’s e-readers are not yet ready to replace the textbook.

Campus Technology / May 2010 / Jennifer Demsk

Electronic readers may be ushering in a watershed moment in personal reading, with the Amazon Kindle, Sony Reader, and Barnes & Noble Nook duking it out for market dominance (and with the iPad warming up in the wings). But how do these contenders fare in the academic marketplace? In theory, e-reader devices seem ideal as a replacement for the expensive, heavy, traditional textbook—even more so, perhaps, than for the beach-compatible paperback book, which can take heavy doses of sand, suntan lotion, salt water, and trampling feet and still deliver the goods!

But reading for learning is not the same activity as reading for pleasure, and so the question must be asked: Do these devices designed for the consumer book market match up against the rigors of academic reading?

Campus Technology recently spoke with three universities that conducted e-reader pilots on their campuses to address that question. Northwest Missouri State University tested the Sony Reader PRS-505 during the 2008-2009 school year, while Princeton University (NJ) and Arizona State University are participating in a pilot of the Kindle DX with five other universities over the course of the 2009-2010 school year.

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3 comments:

  1. In 1987, an IBM Research Division task force (TF) in the San Jose laboratory considered the topic of "the paperless office". Its (obvious) objective was to recommend long-term IBM Research activities pertinent to the many conjectured opportunities that, to this day, motivate an immense number of reports and conjectured futures.

    We quickly realized (I was a TF member) several things that seem still to be true and applicable.

    (1) Paper is a highly refined technology, with characteristics better adapted to its prominent uses than any technology that we could foresee. For instance, the realizable contrast ratio between marked and unmarked areas is much greater than any screen technology. Its reflectivity characteristics (scattering incident light diffusely instead of reflecting it like a mirror) are superb for reading. You can fold it into your pocket, or rip off whatever you want. And paper is manufactured in a wide range of qualities.

    (2) There is an immense infrastructure supporting paper usage. For instance, one of the largest civilian bureaucracies is devoted to moving paper from place to place--the post office, and that has since been supplemented by large private competitors.

    (3) Even though ecological considerations make it popular to decry chewing up forests to make paper (or chopsticks) the paper and wood product industries are very efficient, producing economical products, and employing large numbers of people.

    (4) We have excellent facilities for preserving information on paper. In my home, the technology is called bookshelves and filing cabinets. Even though we have for about a decade known fail-safe and inexpensive methods for preservation of digital documents, institutional inertia among those who expressed interest in this need (e.g., professional librarians and archivists) suggests that practical digital preservation will not occur in the next decade or two. (Obvious speculations would address why this is the case.)

    (5) New technologies do not often replace established technologies, but instead complement them. Many examples can be cited. (One counter-example is that we no longer use horses except for amusement.)

    It seems to me that none of these factors is much changed (on an economical scale). Furthermore, the current noises about pricing electronic books, coupled with their limited convenience (notwithstanding hyperbole from the e-book industry) seem to me most unattractive. (For instance, scanning portions of paper books for marking and sharing is easy and does not violate lawful copyright privileges.)

    Today, scholars, elementary school children, and many other people, are skilled in deciding when to use paper and when to use digital technologies. And getting better at such trade-offs!

    Whenever I visit a conventional library or bookstore, I am impressed by the number of other visitors. Although I do not know the statistics, I suspect that these numbers are higher than ever, and will continue to climb--both in the wealthy countries and in the third world.

    Bottom line: absent improvements that I have not heard proposed, much less promised, e-book technology will remain a marginal thing. Although I would be pleased to see something better, I do not currently expect it in my lifetime.

    "Ushering in a watershed moment in personal reading"? I don't think so!

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  2. It is funny how many people are still so resistant to change in 2010.

    At one point, the public consensus was the "horseless carriage" would fail as well.

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  3. While I agree that some of today's ereading devices are unsuitable for textbooks and other "formal" documentation, the next generation coming in the near future is an entirely different kettle of fish. I wouldn't even begin to consider trying to read any kind of formal documentation on the PRS-505 I had, but with the advent of the new 8", 9", 10" and 13" ereaders, I would have no hesitation whatsoever. The only issue I could see with any ereader device in the large screen category would be that it MUST have some kind of highlighting and notetaking capability.

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