Sunday, 23 May 2010

ebook readers and scholarship

I recently tweeted a link to a YouTube video entitled ‘A scholar gets a kindle and starts to read’. It’s certainly well worth a watch, especially if you enjoy the patrician disdain style of lecturing affected by Oxbridge and the Ivy league.

It’s also quite interesting for what it says about ebook readers and scholarship. Now I’m not a scholar, I’m an amateur, but I used to be a scholar – experience which has stood me in good stead over the years – and I have an insight into the business of scholarship and something that actually is not too removed from the business much of my day to day work.

Now what I have been doing with my Cool-er e-reader is reading Tacitus and a set of letters from 1870’s Japan – recreational reading and definitely not scholarship. What I have not been doing is reading technical documents – which is what I thought I would do given most of them exist as pdf’s. Use an e-reader, save a tree, etc.

Well that’s just not happened. Firstly, one really needs a reflowable format such as epub, rather than a fixed ‘this is what a printed one looks like’ format like pdf to work on an e-reader, and the damned linearity of the reading process on the e-reader. It took a scholar to point it out but it’s true.

If one reads Lindsey Davis it’s reading for relaxation and one wants to be told a story and start at the beginning and go through to the end. Definitely a linear narrative.

Read Tacitus, or 19th century letters describing life in early Meiji Japan, one still needs linearity and to break off and think about things. Here the e-book reader is good – it remembers where you are so you can easily go back to the place you were.

Try and read something complex where one needs to refer forward and back, highlight and scribble notes it doesn’t quite work. You can’t do it, you need what is effectively a commonplace book to write notes in and refer back – just as one did as an undergraduate in the days before technology – in my case St Andrews in the 1970’s, and like the 70’s one then needs to diagram some sort of relationship between the notes.

So, the e-book reader fails scholarship, but then it never set out to be more than a text presentation device. The question is can one develop a scholarly workbench set of tools that work on an iPad like device that let one carry out complex reading.

I purposely say iPad like, as I suspect a linux based tablet such as the JooJoo with a multi tasking operating system and an enormous code base of scholarly tools might be a better place to start from …

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