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Ebook readers – a primer, a rant, and a call for pertinent discussion

Getting the facts straight

Even now, a year and a half after the release of Kindle 1.0–not even the first or most innovative of ebook readers–I keep seeing bloggers and other Web folk (many of them librarians or engineers who should know better) spouting off opinions like “why not just buy a laptop and read on that?” or “screens hurt my eyes.” And that bugs me. Clearly, there’s a huge failure in marketing happening on Amazon’s (and Sony’s and iRex’s) part. But I’m not sure what else they should be doing to educate consumers–nowadays, you can go a Target store and play with a Sony Reader in person; even some libraries have Kindles (link goes to my review of one of CMU’s Libraries’ two Kindle 1.0s), so trying one out isn’t insurmountably difficult. Nearly every article about these readers points out that they use E Ink, though, yes, most reporters have started taking for granted that people know what that means. I just don’t get how people who care enough to have an opinion on this don’t also care enough to educate themselves a little bit. </rant>

In hopes of preventing my engineering and librarian colleagues from making similarly inane statements, I’d like to tell you something very important: ebook readers like the Kindle, Sony, iLliad, and upcoming Plastic Logic reader do not have bright backlit screens like monitors or iPhones. Instead, they have what looks like a printed page, pretty much. If you’d like a familiar comparison, it’s a bit like reading a large scientific (or most any other) calculator, but with much better resolution and a far less shiny surface. It really looks like a printed page. E Ink is black-and-white, until probably 2010, when color devices should start coming out. And it has no backlight; you have to find a lamp if you want to read in the dark.

Other facts: the refresh rate on the newer devices is similar to the time lag of flipping a page–it was slower on Kindle 1.0. As you read, you can add bookmarks and annotations, stop at one page and start back at the same place, and in all other ways treat it like a book. On the Kindle, there’s even a tiny status bar at the bottom of the screen that tells you how much of the way through the book you are. But it’s a little bit better than a book, in that the font size can be changed, and you can run a search for a particular word or sentence you remember. I find it attractive that something the size of a large paperback or a magazine–depending whether you go Kindle 2.0 or Kindle DX, for instance–holds thousands of books.

In addition to books in various formats–and, no, the formats aren’t currently all that interoperable between devices–Kindle DX and the upcoming Plastic Logic reader will both read PDFs natively. (For older Kindles, you first have to convert them to the Kindle file format, which may or may not cost $0.10, depending who you ask.) This alone makes me consider getting one, because I read an awful lot of academic articles, wasting an awful lot of paper (and carrying an awful lot of it around) in the process. Plastic Logic will also read Word docs, Excel files, and Powerpoints, and is said to have some touchscreen capabilities.

For most people, the really exciting thing about the Plastic Logic reader, due to come out in late 2009 or early 2010, is that it will be flexible. Holding it really will be just like holding a closed magazine, though I am not certain it will roll up as well as a magazine does. For 8.5×11″ documents, you can hold it upright, and for books you can hold it sideways, just like the Kindle DX. It will have wireless capabilities, though perhaps not the same ones as the Kindle; both will allow for auto-downloading of the day’s newspapers and blogs, for a fee.

For more information

For a comparison-and-contrast of several ereader technologies, circa December 2008 (so, before specs were released on Kindle 2.0), feel free to look at my LIS 2000 group’s poster on the topic, here.

And to see what articles I’m reading (even weeks or months after I post this!) about ebook readers, feel free to check out my links on the topic: – admittedly, a few of the links in there are about actual ebooks, rather than the readers, but it’s pretty easy to tell the difference. If you want to follow the articles I read about just the Kindle or just the Plastic Logic reader, you can do that at these two links, respectively: and

The debate the library community, including users, should be having

I apologize for being all ranty, but I really think it’s time we move on to the substantive part of the debate. “The aesthetic quality of reading a book” is not lost in any appreciable way with most of these devices–they feel like a book to hold and look like a book to read. You can spray them with book perfume if you miss “the smell of books.” (I know I sound like I’m jeering here, but I just don’t think this part of the debate is worth holding. I’m trying to lay it to rest.) And, inevitably, the prices will go down–they always do. The ebook is here; the ereader is coming; we will eventually stop printing books. Not now, but very possibly within our lifetimes. So, let’s drop the sentimental arguments and move on to practical discussion.

Let’s talk about how we will fight the restrictive DRM on ebooks (so that I can move my purchases from the Plastic Logic 1.0 to the Plastic Logic 5.0, given my rate of upgrading–or maybe to the Kindle 7.0, if I want to switch brands–and so, eventually, my library can buy one interoperable copy of a book, rather than four proprietary ones); let’s decide whether it’s worthwhile to lend out ebook readers in the near term; for the long term, let’s figure out how to work with publishers to make the ebooks our patrons currently have to use monitors or printers to read accessible on their ereaders (perhaps for limited periods of time!); let’s think about privacy and financial protection in the case of lost or stolen ereaders.

More broadly, let’s decide on the library’s role and what shape it will take when everything outside of archives is digital. Because that’s where we’re going, book-smell or no book-smell.

Published inbooksebookslibrarianshiptechnology


  1. Sarah

    Well said!I’m not yet convinced that the printed book is dying… I’m still devoted to text-on-paper because of its immunity to technological obsolescence. (That was a very pompous way of saying that I can read a 50-year-old book, but not a 50-year-old Hollerith card.)Then there’s the digital divide thing. Yes, ebook readers will get less expensive, but not quickly enough to make printed books unnecessary for most of us.

  2. […] not going to talk about ereaders vs. netbooks/iPads/iPhones vs. books right now. I’ve done that, albeit back in the pre-iPad era—and back when I was in love with a product that never […]

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