[Heather Bowlby is a NINES Fellow for the 2010-2011 year and a Ph. D. Candidate in English at the University of Virginia.]
Like most new e-book users, I had to learn to use my Kindle when I received it. The reading experience as mediated through electronic devices is certainly different than that provided by traditional books, and this alteration requires some adjustment. As much as it may replicate the qualities of physical books, the Kindle does not offer the same reading experience as its paper ancestors. It is—as Amazon claims—a reading “device” that makes highly-refined, digitized text available for consumption and manipulation. The Kindle reorients the reader’s relationship to the text by accentuating the reader’s agency in textual interactions. A reader’s interactions with traditional books are usually limited to highlighting text, writing notes in margins, and the ability to flip through a book at will. With the Kindle, however, the reader may not only highlight and annotate text, but also share and compare these notes with those of other readers by means of wifi or Amazon’s own 3G network. Definitions of words from the Kindle’s built-in dictionary are accessible just by moving the cursor, and Wikipedia and Google are a couple of clicks away courtesy of the Kindle’s experimental web browser.
In addition to these conveniences, the Kindle enables the reader to alter the underlying structure of the text itself to an unprecedented extent. Elements of the text that are immutable in printed books—such as the style and size of the font, the spacing of words, and the orientation of the page—are open to manipulation in e-books. Readers who use e-books have the ability to revise a text to fit their own personal preferences, thus assuming a more active role in textual production than possible in traditional relationships between authors, publishers, and readers.
The ability to interact with the text in these ways is attractive, and after I adjusted to the experience of reading on the Kindle, I appreciated the advantages of e-readers as I had anticipated that I would. I gradually assembled an electronic library on my device that fit my various reading needs and was highly accessible and, thus, travel-friendly. A wide variety of out-of-copyright books is available for the Kindle at a very low price (or even free), and as nineteenth-century literature is my field of study, I benefited from this selection. In addition to many comprehensive or near-comprehensive collections of the works of well-known authors, I was able to find some obscure texts that are not readily available in print or are expensive. Being able to access this library quickly and easily has been immensely helpful in my work, and my Kindle library has fulfilled the function of reference repository very well.
Because the quality of the digital texts in my Kindle library is not always trustworthy, however, I do not entirely rely on my Kindle for detailed or intensive textual study: I still prefer to use critical editions of printed books for this type of serious work. Editions of e-books suitable for scholarly study are scarce, and those that exist often present problems that impair academic work. The Penguin edition of Tennyson’s epic Idylls of the King was one of the first books I downloaded for my new Kindle, but I discovered that the e-book format mangled the spacing of the poetic lines when I tried to adjust the size of the font. Additionally, the Kindle’s method of dealing with electronic page references (termed “locations”) is an ingenious way of addressing the alterations in paging that occur when readers adjust aspects of the text (like font size, etc.), but this method does not translate smoothly to the format of academic page citations. The MLA style guide currently does not include any instructions about how to reference “locations.”
As a whole, these issues present significant obstacles to using e-readers as the sole basis for scholarly work. These problems primarily concern the current technical format of e-books like the Kindle, however, and they are not insurmountable. The technology behind e-readers is still new, and as this technology is improved, the Kindle and other e-readers could very well adapt to fit the needs of scholars more effectively. The chance that improvement will occur is greatly enhanced when there is a market for it, and developers like Amazon will need to know that the market for academic texts is significant enough to invest energy into making e-readers effective tools for scholars to use. The Kindle certainly cannot replace printed books: in many respects, traditional books will always be far superior to their electronic counterparts. However, e-readers like the Kindle do have the potential to be valuable aids to scholars in their everyday work with texts, and this potential will most likely only be realized in future incarnations of e-readers if developers perceive a willingness to use the technology that they create.
[Heather Bowlby is a NINES Fellow for the 2010-2011 year and a Ph. D. Candidate in English at the University of Virginia.]
Amazon’s description of the Kindle highlights the versatility and intuitive nature of the device, claiming that the Kindle not only replicates the experience of reading a traditional paper book, but improves it. The Kindle is not only “lighter than a paperback,” it permits various manipulations of the text to enhance the ease of reading: font style choices, text enlargement, spacing of lines and margins, screen orientation, and even a text-to-speech function to convert written text into audio. A section of Amazon’s advertisement of the Kindle is even titled “Reading, Revolutionized” to promote the Kindle as providing an entirely new model of reading a text—reading, upgraded and enhanced to fit the demands of the twenty-first century. With its 3,500 book capacity, the Kindle 3 functions both as a repository and as a reading machine.
Amazon, however, avoids emphasizing the machine-like qualities of the Kindle. The Kindle is never called a “machine” on Amazon’s advertisement; instead, it is referred to using terms such as “device,” “product,” and “item.” Despite highlighting the technological properties of the e-reader and its many advantages over physical books, Amazon is unwilling to separate the Kindle from its paper ancestors entirely. The e-ink technology that claims to be the best clone of “real” ink on the market, the ability of the Kindle to be independent from computers, the nostalgic images of classic authors displayed on the device’s screen during sleep mode: all of these qualities illustrate Amazon’s attempt to downplay the computerized technology that enables the Kindle to operate. In this sense, Amazon seems to recognize an undercurrent of anxiety among its customer base surrounding the technological power visibly embodied by e-readers like the Kindle. Does the revolution of reading claimed by the Kindle fundamentally affect the way we relate to written texts? Do the space-age capabilities of the Kindle in fact widen the distance between the reader and the text—thereby destroying the quality of the reading experience in favor of “improvement?”
Amazon seems to occupy an uneasy position between marketing the Kindle as a herald of a new, superior era in textual consumption and assuring consumers that the links to traditional paper texts have not been severed and are, in fact, celebrated by the Kindle. As a graduate student in English and thus a “professional” reader, I was initially skeptical of the Kindle’s ability to assist me productively in my everyday reading activities, mainly because I didn’t see how the device could realistically replace the traditional books I must use. The price tag of the Kindle 2—$269 at the time—seemed an unnecessary extravagance on my limited income for a tool that couldn’t entirely live up to its promise to “revolutionize” my reading. I changed my mindset earlier this year when I read through the Kindle description on Amazon and I realized that although the new-and-improved Kindle 3 still can’t truly replace traditional books for my needs, it can function as a helpful tool in conjunction with these books.
On their website, Amazon claims that the “most elegant feature of a physical book is that it disappears while you’re reading” and states that “[o]ur top design objective is to make the Kindle disappear.” The ideas behind these statements are indeed disturbing to me, but they did not deter me from ordering a Kindle. Ultimately, my aim in purchasing a Kindle was to use it as an instrument, like a laptop, that would assist me in my everyday activities. I hoped that the Kindle would enhance my use of physical books: I was well aware that it couldn’t entirely replace many of them, and while I would purchase some books in electronic format, there are many others that I prefer to own in hardcopy. Thinking of the Kindle as a tool to use alongside traditional books rather than as a replacement helped convince me to invest in one. And, as I have discovered during the two months that I’ve owned a Kindle 3, this expectation has mostly proven to be true.
Coming Soon: Part 3
In the Fall term of 2009, Princeton conducted a pilot sponsored by the High Meadows Foundation, the University Library, and the Office of Information Technology, to assess the use of e-readers in the classroom. The reader used was the Amazon Kindle DX, a lightweight, portable e-reader with the capacity to hold approximately 3500 books, in three University courses.
The project aimed to explore the use of the e-readers in classes for which e-reserves were the primary readings. The printing of e-reserve readings at Princeton accounts for a large portion of printing in public clusters (total of 10 million sheets of paper last year). The e-reader pilot sought to target e-reserve readings and present them on an e-reader to see if printing could be reduced.
The pilot participants consisted of three faculty members, 51 students, and several administrators in the Library and the Office of Information Technology.
The three courses in the pilot involved considerable eReserve reading, all had some content in the Kindle store, and they had to be of a size that would permit the involvement of three courses. The courses in the pilot were Civil Society and Public Policy (Professor Stanley Katz, an undergraduate seminar), U.S. Policy in the Middle East (Ambassador Daniel Kurtzer, a graduate seminar), and Religion and Magic in Ancient Rome (Professor Harriet Flower, a graduate seminar).
Devices were given to students in September. The pilot was voluntary with opt-out possibilities at any time. One student opted out at the start of the pilot. No student opted out after the pilot began. Students were asked to do the bulk of the course reading on the Kindle. 95% of the students reported that they had not previously used an eReader.
Participants were asked to do pilot course readings on the e-reader without printing as much as they felt it was possible. The pilot concluded with a survey and some final focus groups in February 2010.
The survey results are available at at the e-reader project web site and in the presentation slides.
The goals of the pilot were to reduce the desire to print, to explore the unique strengths of eReaders, all while being careful not to affect adversely the classroom experience.
At the April 14 Lunch ‘n Learn seminar, Janet Temos, Director of OIT’s Educational Technologies Center, Stan Katz and Dan Kurtzer two of the faculty involved in the pilot, and Trevor Dawes, Circulation Director at the University Library reviewed the findings of the Princeton e-reader pilot and shared their experiences.
Temos reported that the pilot did indeed reduce students’ desire to print.
Students judged the screen size, image resolution, device weight and storage capacity to be excellent. Highlighting, annotating, navigating within and between books, and the dictionary features achieved much less positive evaluations. Overall, Temos reported, the students thought that the devices had promise, the reason they said at the end that none opted out.
Kurtzer noted that, in his graduate seminar, all of the students were expected to read the course material before coming to class. And so, while they may have experienced some challenges with navigation, those did not occur in class. He reported that all of the students liked the fact that they could carry all of their reading around all of the time.
Many of Kurtzer’s students have recently downloaded material from current classes to maintain the experience. Main criticisms included highlighting, keeping track of bookmark references, and moving between and among passages from different books.
One problem that the pilot addressed was the difficulty of working with pdf documents because you can’t enlarge the type size. The only surprise in the data, reported Kurtzer, was that the pilot appears only to cut down 50% of the students’ printing.
Use of the Library’s eReserve system has grown exponentially, Dawes commented. The pilot provided a good opportunity to test the use of the eReserves system on an eReader platform. For this project, the processing was different in that it was required to scan the pages individually, trimmed, and processed further by OIT staff. Early on, we discovered that the Kindle could not read pdf documents in their native format. The amount of staff time involved was large and, he concluded, would not be sustainable for the device. We will continue to monitor progress to see if new devices will be able to accommodate pdf’s more efficiently.
Professor Katz’s course involved 23 books. He emphasized that the device is superbly ideal to accompany travel, and he and students agree wholeheartedly with that assessment. That said, it was wholly inappropriate for the close textual work involved in the course.
Classroom discussion required that all students be looking at the same passages, and they were expected to annotate those passages. Annotations collapse into footnotes, the keyboard is tough to use, and the Kindle had built-in limits on the amount of text that could be highlighted and annotated. The tedious nature of finding passages caused consistent classroom confusion. All that said, he is off to San Francisco for a dissertation review. “I will load it into the Kindle, said Katz, “and love it once again.”
Janet Temos was trained as an architectural historian, and received degrees in art history from Williams College (MA 1992), and Princeton University (PhD 2001). She began working with the Educational Technologies Center (ETC), in 1993, and became a full-time member of the staff in 2000. She is now director of ETC, and continues to work with faculty who wish to use computer technology in their teaching. Current projects include courses on film, archaeology, medieval manuscripts, African languages taught in the US, and a collaborative project with the Princeton University Art Museum to develop an on-line repository of digital images of objects in the museum’s East Asian collection.
Daniel C. Kurtzer retired from the U.S. Foreign Service with the rank of Career-Minister. From 2001-2005 he served as the United States Ambassador to Israel and from 1997-2001 as the United States Ambassador to Egypt. He served as a political officer at the American embassies in Cairo and Tel Aviv, Deputy Director of the Office of Egyptian Affairs, speechwriter on the Policy Planning Staff, Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for Near Eastern Affairs, and Principal Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for Intelligence and Research. Kurtzer was a member of the American delegation to the Israel-Palestinian autonomy negotiations (1979-1982), helped negotiate the creation of the Multinational Force and Observers (1981-1982), negotiated and oversaw the successful arbitration of the Taba border dispute between Israel and Egypt, crafted the 1988 peace initiative of Secretary of State George P. Shultz, and in 1991 served as a member of the U.S. peace team that brought about the Madrid Peace Conference. Subsequently, he served as coordinator of the multilateral peace negotiations and as the U.S. Representative in the Multilateral Refugee Working Group. Kurtzer received several of the U.S. Government’s most prestigious awards, including the President’s Distinguished Service Award, the Department of State Distinguished Service Award, the National Intelligence Community’s Award for Achievement, and the Director General of the Foreign Service Award for Political Reporting. Ph.D. Columbia University.
Stanley Katz is president emeritus of the American Council of Learned Societies. His recent research focuses upon the relationship of civil society and constitutionalism to democracy, and upon the relationship of the United States to the international human rights regime. He is also a commentator on higher education policy. Formerly Class of 1921 Bicentennial Professor of the History of American Law and Liberty at Princeton University, Katz is a scholar of American legal and constitutional history, and on philanthropy and non-profit institutions. He is the editor of the Oliver Wendell Holmes Devise History of the Supreme Court of the United States and of the forthcoming Encyclopedia of Legal History (OUP, 2009). The author and editor of numerous books and articles, he has served as president of the Organization of American Historians and the American Society for Legal History and as vice president of the Research Division of the American Historical Association. He is a member of the Board of Trustees of the Newberry Library, the Copyright Clearance Center and numerous other institutions. He is a commissioner of the National Historic Publications and Records Commission. He also currently serves as chair of the American Council of Learned Societies/Social Science Research Council Working Group on Cuba. Katz is a member of the New Jersey Council for the Humanities, the American Antiquarian Society, the American Philosophical Society; a fellow of the American Society for Legal History, the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, and the Society of American Historians; a corresponding member of the Massachusetts Historical Society and an academico correspondiente of the Cuban Academy of Sciences. He has honorary degrees from several universities. Ph.D. Harvard University. Katz is director of the Center for Arts and Cultural Policy Studies.
Trevor A. Dawes is the Circulation Services Director at the Princeton University Library, where he is responsible for the circulation, reserve, current periodicals, stack, remote storage and Borrow Direct operations in the library. He previously held several positions at the Columbia University Libraries. Mr. Dawes earned his MLS from Rutgers University’s School of Communication, Information, and Library Studies, and has two additional Masters Degrees from Teachers College, Columbia University. He is an active member of the American Library Association and the Association of College and Research Libraries.