Contemplations: Marginalia, Texts, and Analog Trails

This morning, I was playing around on Google Books while doing some research on the documentary history of the Province of Nova Scotia. Google Books is not my first choice as a resource since it’s such a difficult beast to break in spite of all its great historical content, but I was curious to see what might be digitized on the subject. That’s when I came across these pages in the front of The Documentary History of the State of Maine (1869), Vol. 1:

The Documentary History of the State of Maine (1869), Vol. 1, Scanned by "David" for Google Books
The Documentary History of the State of Maine (1869), Vol. 1, Scanned by "David" for Google Books

It seems that in the act of digitizing the text, David, our digitizer, has scanned his hand right into the book.  David, his ring, and his tiny-finger gloves have become digitized marginalia. Like a student’s note in the margins or a phone number quickly inscribed in the front matter, David’s fingers are now part of the text, forever.¹

Marginalia has always fascinated me. I owe this to a distinguished professor who held court in one of my undergraduate seminars many years ago.  He once explained to us the pleasure he found when discovering his students’ notes in the margins of texts in the university library.  As he was an older professor and had taught at the school for many years, he knew the library’s collection and his students’ use of texts in his field quite well. He enjoyed discovering hand-written notes in his assigned texts or in books that were pertinent to his subject matter since these notes became “analog trails” (my term, and a pun on “digital trails”, of course) that led back to the discussions held in his seminars and to the knowledge developed in them.

I’ve since come to look upon marginalia as tiny clues that show how a text has linked different people and ideas together. I often wonder, in a nostalgic way, how these bonds will change when ebooks become ubiquitous. We can append and share notes in digital texts, of course. But these notes, which were at one time inscribed in the book or on a piece of paper and left to be discovered by another reader, have been transformed by common fonts and encoding that might link and share thoughts but don’t show significance or meaning in quite the same way. In the e-book cloud and on our social websites, readers and the value of notes are flattened, which, I think, affects the importance and allure of this marginalia.²

It goes without saying that the e-book has altered our relationship to the text and to knowledge. No longer do we have a one-to-one relationship with the physical object in front of us. Now we can potentially have a one-to-many relationship with all of the text’s readers. There are clear benefits to be gained from this, i.e., don’t think that I’m a Luddite and want to turn my back on the new communities of readers that are developing thanks to e-book innovations.  But my thoughts today (and what this post is only scratching the surface of) are focused on how the physical manifestation of a text – i.e. the book, affects our relationship with its content. A book’s marginalia often represents one person’s relationship with a particular copy of a text rather than one’s relationship with a community of fellow readers. Reading marginalia is almost like reading a diary since one is reading notes and thoughts left primarily for personal consumption. When we encounter marginalia, we are discovering secrets and clues left behind by other readers – clues that can alter our interpretations of the text, but only in the copy we are holding in our hands.

Marginalia also individualizes or “makes unique” texts that are published in large volumes. Just as violinists treasure their violin’s lineage from one musician to another, many readers treasure the sign’s of a book’s “borrowing history”: the notes on the pages left behind by previous readers, the dog-eared corners, the discolored, yellowed pages which signify its age and in some ways, its value to the collection. All these marks, notes, dents, and scribbles create a “lineage” of readers for the text. They show the would-be reader the value that others have found in the text, and the added value he or she may acquire upon reading it.  These scribbles and folds haunt a physical book; they create a history of reading, marked in time and place by the thoughts of its previous readers.

We are shifting away from a centuries-old period where the content and its container were inseparable – where the content was signified by the container, and where the container gave the reader clues about the content’s worth. Although it hasn’t been difficult for our culture to make the transition to our new digital period where the container’s role has been diminished, I wonder if we should be paying more attention to how our interaction with texts – whether it is writing marginalia or selecting ebooks from a virtual shelf – affects our understanding of knowledge and the development of “collective wisdom.” That’s not to say that things are worse (or better) off today compared to “time before e-books” so much as it is to suggest that when our interaction with knowledge has for so long been focused on reading the written word with a pen and paper close at hand, it may be a useful to exercise to study how our new tools and technologies affect the ways we think and learn.

I’ll leave these theoretical and literary implications alone for another day when I have the courage to transform these meandering thoughts into a well-sourced argument that might provide understanding. And I’ll end by acknowledging the irony found in writing these thoughts in digital form for a larger community of readers.

1.  For the record, David caught his mistake and re-scanned the page.  The next scans in the Google Books scroll of images are clean digital images of these pages.  Also, my research on early Nova Scotian documents continues.

2.  I am not suggesting that no extra meaning or significance can be found in e-book notes or on social reading websites. Social sites actually do an incredible job at adding meaning to a text, but they do this in different ways, e.g., crowd-sourced discussions and reviews.

iPads in libraries: waiting on better browser interfaces

Edit: Jan 31/2011 – Check out the link that Val Forrestal provides to her blog in the first reply to this post.  Last summer, she and a colleague filmed their attempt to read e-books on an ipad by way of different vendors..  It’s worth checking out.   -michael.

Regular readers to this blog will know I’m a big fan of the iPad as an instructional tool and expect it to become a common piece of technology on our campuses in a few years.  As more competitors enter the market, as more and more apps as built, and once Apple starts offering educational discounts on the iPad(as they did with the original iPod Touch when it purchased with a MacBook or an iMac), tablets of all sizes will become a ubiquitous learning tool.

That’s not to say that the iPad is Steve Jobs‘ gift to education; tablets are not a perfect learning tool by any means. An iPad is a great reading device, and it’s a great social and communicative device, but it’s not great at synthesis: we’ll still have to turn to a technology with a traditional keyboard to write our papers.  But that shouldn’t hinder the tablet’s growth. After all, the book is an incredible reading device but it’s not a great writing tool. But it’s still made it this far.

What will hinder the growth of iPads on campuses, though, are our e-book platforms.  It goes without saying that e-books have altered the publishing industry, in both consumer and scholarly circles.  I know my colleagues at our health sciences library, for instance, love the speed in which medical e-books are being published and revised – and they’re looking forward to seeing more of these full-color books in the hands of their medical students by way of the tablet.  But if ever there was a roadblock to this growth of e-books and tablets, it’s got to be the vendors’ browser-based e-book interface.  While very few people actually prefer to read an e-book front to back with their 21″ flatscreen monitor, even fewer people want to read the same e-book on a 9″ tablet through the same browser interface that was designed for nearly two feet of high-definition viewing.  The shoddy form factor ruins the reading experience.

I’ve taken some screen captures from two of our heavily used e-book platforms at my place of work.  The first is MyiLibrary, which is awful on an iPad.  The second is the SpringerLink interface, which is based on PDF downloads, so it offers a more pleasant experience:

MyiLibrary's Table of Contents for "Adams vs. Jefferson: The Tumultuous Election of 1800". A clickable TOC. So far, So good
Looking at Chapter 4 of "Adams vs. Jefferson". TOC and Search functions to the left, which are useful, but the page sits in a very small window on the iPad
Pushed back the TOC on the left, but it remains difficult to scroll and zoom the e-book's page on a tablet

These three images show how annoying it is to read a MyiLibrary book on an iPad.  Although a reader may appreciate the table of contents on the left, the contents of the book (i.e. that which really matters to the reader) are hard to flip through because of the lost real estate on the screen.  Furthermore, pages must be turned by using very small arrow icons at the bottom of the page, and the full-screen mode (seen in the third image) takes up only 2/3s of the screen at best.  This browser interface may protect MyiLibrary’s content, but it does so at the reader’s expense.

Now, compare the last three images to what we find through SpringerLink:

Considering a text housed on SpringerLink. Chapters are offered as full-text PDF downloads. Springer clearly treats this book as a journal with separate articles.
The first page in the SpringerLink interface. Users can browse the text with the horizontal bar before zooming in on a page below.
Reading SpringerLink PDFs on an iPad is a beautiful thing since full-text PDFs can be downloaded through the browser.

You can see by my comments that I prefer the SpringerLink interface.  There are, of course, other scholarly e-book platforms other than SpringerLink.  And of course, SpringerLink’s reading experience isn’t perfect, either (e.g., opening the text was difficult on an iPad, but after that it was smooth sailing).    However, my point in taking these screen captures was not to railroad one vendor in favor of another.  Rather, it was to highlight something that is vital to tablet use on campus: vendor platforms that make reading accessible with this technology.  Librarians, scholars, and students are going to be stuck with poor interfaces until the vendors find a way to transfer their intellectual property through a browser with ease.   Maybe each vendor will develop an app that works with a library’s proxy to circumvent this issue, but then the libraries have got to deal with unhappy patrons who themselves must deal with a half-dozen programs to open as opposed to their one Safari or browser window.

It’s times like this that I wish instructional librarians truly worked closer with systems librarians as well as with vendors.  The iPad is an opportunity for all stakeholders on campus, but we’re going to be spinning our wheels for some time until we can find some common ground regarding content delivery on the device.

The iPad is great. Scholarly e-Book interfaces on an iPad are awful.

Last night I borrowed an ipad from my library/place of work to see how our vendors’ e-reader platforms stack up. In a word, the interfaces which the vendors provide are not ipad/tablet friendly at all. EBL, ebrary, and MyiLibrary all show content on their framed pages, i.e., what we’re used to seeing on our desktops and PCs. This may be acceptable to some when you have a widescreen monitor, but it doesn’t work well at all on a tablet. It is terribly difficult to zoom in on the page in order to click on the vendors’ own zoom functions, which hampers the reading experience.

Obviously, it’s still quite early in the game, but I think the vendors could learn a little from the e-book platforms used for devices and GUIs such as the Kindle, the Sony e-reader, etc. Books used on these devices are stored in a similar PDF format, but it is far, far easier to scroll through, to zoom, and to annotate on these than it is with vendor ebook interfaces. This became as clear as day once I tried out the iPad‘s own  iBooks Bookshelf: this different piece of software – used on the same device I was trying to read our ebooks on – gave me so many more functions than the vendors’ software could.

I’m not writing off the use of tablets, in the least.  I adore the iPad and will buy one shortly.  I also think that there will be a time when most textbooks will be purchased and read on them, and I think that time is much closer than we expect. But we’re at a point where the hardware exists to support the idea, but the software interfaces still need to catch up.  Apple does have a fine product; I’m curious to see how our vendors will react to it.

In the mean time, check out an iPad if you can and compare vendor-supplied e-books to books on the Apple iBooks bookshelf (some are pre-loaded for free), and then check out other books – also on PDF – on the Project Gutenberg website. You’ll see the difference in spades.

n.b. i am referring to browser-based e-reader interfaces in this post, which are substantially different from the Apple iBook bookshelf.  But that’s my point – we need to see great software from vendors to really make the ebook work.

iPads in libraries: preparing for the critical mass

iPad Display Item
The iPad makes reading, carrying, and storing ebooks easy.

Is your library ready for the iPad?  Do you have patrons requesting ebooks for their tablet or asking for reference help on a question they’ve already started mapping out on their iPad instead of a workbook?

If you haven’t seen an iPad in your library yet, then get ready for them, because in No Time Flat we’re going to see these devices on a regular basis, and it won’t be very long before they become a dominant learning technology.  It may not be when classes return in September, but I’d venture that we’ll see iPads and other tablets on a regular basis in January (i.e., after the Christmas season), and by the 2011/2012 academic year they will become a viable study aid and learning tool for a plurality of students.

We know why the iPad will work so well in academics – because of all the reasons it works well in the real world, i.e., it is a small, portable device that is large enough to reproduce A4 and 8.5×11 sheets of paper on a comparable space.  It costs the same as as a netbook but has twice the viewing space and loads of different capabilities a netbook can’t even think of doing.  Add to the fact that the iPad is packed to the gills with communicative technologies seen in our smartphones and notebook computers, and it becomes a match made in heaven.

It’s not going to be long before tablets become ubiquitous on campus, so we need to get ready for them now in libraries.  This means that we must reconfigure our programming and our resources in a manner that makes the most out of the tools our students are using.  A couple things come to mind right off the bat.  We need to push our ebook vendors for decent mobile-configured platforms.  We need to ask ourselves how our websites and streaming tutorials appear on tablets, and how much bandwidth they consume (important to anyone on a 3G/4G wireless network).  We should be asking ourselves how we can communicate to our communities of users on the devices they will carry with them when conducting research with resources we maintain on their behalf.

So many of the opportunities that tablets offer librarians lie in their deign as a communications and information storage hub.   When the day comes that most students carry tablets, we’ll be able to offer tutorials and lectures that create instant, permanent links with our users.  The iPad can change the One-Shot Library Tutorial into a lesson that pushes library content directly onto the student’s own devices.  Imagine walking to a classroom and immediately transferring to students an application that opens your browser window on their tablets so they can follow along with their iPads as opposed to staring at images projected on a wall?  Or how about having several students reading and collaborating on the same digital document with tablets, which can faithfully mimic the form factor of print?    When I send students to EEBO, they must look at renderings of 300-year-old documents on screens that do nothing to mimic the shape of pamphlets, playbills, and books.  The iPad, however, turns the viewing screen on its end to become longer than it is wide; tie it in with the power of cloud computing and we can help students learn from the same digital object on different devices.  Electronic material has become the rule instead of the exception, so we shouldn’t be surprised when students to expect us to have means to advice them on digital objects with electronic tools.

Forgive me for this blue-sky brainstorming.  For several months now I’ve watched friends say, “I want an iPad and I want it now” (I say this myself all too often, too).   We need to go further, though, and prepare ourselves for the time when students use tablets as their main learning tool.  The iPad is an e-Reader, a communicative device, and a collaboration engine all rolled up in one little package.  And since student purchasing power is strongest in September and December/January, we should get ready now for what is to follow, because in a year or two the iPad and its competitors will be as necessary to learning as a pen and pencil.  Those of use who are in the business of helping people learn how to learn must have expertise with the tools these people use to actually learn things.  This means getting ready for the iPad, its apps, and the way it will complement electronic materials.


DRM, Canada, and the long arm of contract law

One of my projects at work this month has been to promote the use of e-books.  I’m of two minds on the use of electronic book formats – I think the end user will one day see an incredible benefit from them, but I also think that until e-book readers (both software and hardware) become more user-friendly, e-books will remain subordinate to print editions, especially in the humanities.

At any rate, I’ve been reading a lot of contractual fine print on account of this project.  I’m up to my ears in Terms of Services Statements, Copyright Statements, and Privacy Policies, and some of the clauses in the contracts make me cringe.  Let’s look at some parts of eBrary‘s Terms of Service as an example (there is nothing out of the ordinary with eBrary’s TOS, by the way; I’m selecting it only because it is the reader I’ve been using this week).  You can find a link to the TOS at the bottom of your eBrary e-Reader page.  These links are routed through your own institution’s proxy server, however, so I’m instead linking to the TOS as listed on the eBrary corporate site.  The link may be different, but the terms remain the same.

1. Rights, Restrictions, and Respecting Copyrights

(a) The text, images, and other materials available on this site (collectively, the “Materials”) are protected by United States copyright and other applicable laws. You may not engage in any acts inconsistent with the principles of copyright protection and fair use (see the United States Code, 17 USC Sections 106-110). For example, you may not copy, print, reproduce, distribute, transmit, modify, display, or otherwise use the Materials or copies of the Materials, except that, subject to the other terms of this Agreement:

Unless you live in the United States (and the United States is admittedly a very large market), you’ve got problems at the outset.  These terms bind the users at my institution – a Canadian undergraduate university – to copyright laws developed by another nation.  Leaving aside the fact that an interpretation of these laws will be at best imprecise and uninformed because most LIS professionals are not lawyers and most users don’t bother to read an e-book vendor’s TOS, we’ve got a jurisdictional case study that I’m sure no WIPO representative fathomed in 1967.

The eBrary case presents an interesting dilemma in Canada.   Many Canadian Knowledge Research Network consortium members use eBrary to gain access to Canadian primary materials and critical literature.  This means that the Canadian-resident students and staff I serve are accessing Canadian materials through their Canadian university (which is normally subject to Canadian statues), but are bound to a contract framed by foreign law.  How many Canadian LIS professionals are forced to operate merely on the good faith of the vendor in a situation such as this?  Although I have no reason to believe that an organization like eBrary would intentionally place an entire consortia into a situation that could end only in litigation (that would be a complete and utter relationship-destroying measure), this sort of dealing still puts the Canadian LIS professional in a very weak spot.  Although I may know a thing or two about Canadian copyright law, especially as it pertains to fair dealing and libraries, archives and museums, I certainly can’t speak much to US copyright law, and I don’t think the majority of LIS professionals in Canada could, either.

7. Disclaimer of Warranties


This clause should remind us that the texts we read and interact with on eBrary are not our time-worn, dog-eared Penguin’s Classics.  Despite the fact that academic libraries pay tens of thousands of dollars in annual licensing fees to accommodate access rights for their communities, the portal their users must employ to view the text – the web site – is offered “as is.”  If the web site ever crashes, eBrary will not be held responsible.  If the notes and annotations one saves in an account disappears (a slim possibility, I admit), eBrary will not be held responsible.  If one chooses to use an e-book as opposed to borrowing a similar text but the site crashes over the long weekend before a funding application is due, eBrary will not be held responsible.

But perhaps the best part of this disclaimer is the statement that, “NO USER SHOULD RELY ON . . . ANY INFORMATION . . . ON THIS SITE.”  Excuse my excessive use of all-caps for a moment, but I wanted to mimic eBrary’s demand that we acknowledge and understand its blanket concession that its main product (information) and its main service (information dissemination) can ever be relied upon.  Ever.  In an attempt to safeguard itself from ridiculous lawsuits, eBrary has warned us that we can’t trust any of its wares to ever be reliable.  If only i could have put a disclaimer like that on every essay I ever wrote.


[eBrary Terms of Service]

e-books and the humanities

Inside Higher Ed published an article this week on the recent controversy surrounding the decision by the Bird Library at Syracuse University to store rarely used texts at a site 250 miles away from campus, which has stirred debates in LIS and scholarly circles. I’ve been reading commentary in my twitter stream and RSS feeds that considers many of the subjects touched on in the article, from the role of the library and the librarian (book depository or learning commons?  Book Lover or knowledge and asset manager?) to the role of the book in the academy itself (essential to the programme, or redundant in the wake of digitization?).

There are a lot of subjects to tease out of this one post, especially on the profession’s ability to promote its mission to the wider public.  Face it, we don’t know what to call ourselves, we don’t properly and consistently explain what we do to the public, and people often don’t understand the role we play in their institutions and in society at large.  Although the subject of identity and promotion is dear to my heart, the Inside Higher Ed article touches on an undercurrent always topical in LIS circles, which is the place of the monograph in contemporary scholarship.  As we see in the original post (and also witnessed in the always-superb Little Professor blog, there is a genuine concern for the role and the place of the book in humanities libraries (let alone the scholarship!) today.  As a one-time arts student, I appreciate this concern; I spent many days and nights leafing back and forth through texts in order to immerse myself in and learn how a writer’s language and rhetoric toyed with her – and my own – understanding of the text.  So much of our literary and intellectual culture exists in a paradigm that demands individual and constant reflection of the words on the physical page, but the interaction with the text that e-books offer the reader is a poor substitute to the relationship we have with the words we find in print.

That the printed word is vital to humanities research is a truth.  That the printed word is being replaced by its digital cousin, however slowly, is a fact as well.  Economic models, and more importantly,  our culture’s interactions with the word is changing, or has already changed the way in which books are published, collected (or licensed/accessed) and read.  But I think it’s still far too soon before we should hold a wake for the monograph; so long as e-book readers remain prohibitively expensive and DRM continues to offer few benefits to the end-user, and e-book platforms such as MyiLibrary and eBrary refuse to enter consensus on a common look and utility, then the e-book will remain secondary to the printed text.

I’m not suggesting that the e-book will forever be a poor cousin to the printed and bound copy of a text – far from it.  I’m merely contending that we are still a few years away (maybe as few as 2 or 3, maybe as many as 5) before the hand-held e-book reader reaches a critical mass in the marketplace and eclipses the print edition as the format students turn to first. Until the day comes when a plurality of the public carries their own e-book reader, then the printed copy will be the main source for the humanities.

But what of the day when the e-book does assert dominance over the printed text?  Will we dispose all of our bound originals?  Will scholarship on the author’s interaction with the physical object or the study of book history fall by the wayside? Likely not.  These, and others, are strong disciplines and I don’t think the humanities will allow them to wither on the vine. Scholarship in the humanities and the tools of the scholar may change, but it will not disappear. On the contrary, our study of the actual physical text will be more important than ever, especially after such a monumental shift in reading culture will have occurred with the shift to e-readers.