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.

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.

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