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.