footnotes: paper books still do it better

Obviously, being in librarianship (training) and at the School of Information, I hear lots of things about the “death of the book” and the rise of e-books. Many are mainstream media articles that border on the downright silly; others are from tech leaders with interesting speculations; still others are inflamed (but sometimes reasonable) discussions on our school listserv.

To summarize, I hear the following: 1) you can’t get rid of paper books (because you’ll have to pry them out of my cold dead hands) because there’s just something special or nostalgic about them that I can’t put my finger on, or 2) market forces will drive out paper books for good shortly in the future, because there just won’t be enough demand once everyone is on board with e-readers. Get used to it, suckers.

You’d think I have a strong investment in one or the other, but I don’t. Both sides sound vaguely ridiculous to me. I say this as someone with a used book collection that is really larger than a sane person should have. It takes over large regions of my apartment and yet still at least half is in storage elsewhere. I don’t buy a lot of e-books.

Here’s my very strong opinion on the issue: I use both at the same time, and I want to keep doing so. I have a strong preference for e-books (because I have a Kindle now and find it so easy to read on) for pretty much everything that suits the medium, because frankly, they won’t take up physical space and create even more of a nuisance for me than my book collection already does. Why carry around some big trade paperback if you just want to read, and your Project Gutenberg edition is free anyway, for God’s sake. I love having an e-book option and I spend most of my time angsting not over the change, but over the fact that a lot of the selection still sucks, the quality often sucks, and I can’t get enough of what I want on the Kindle.

But why do I still maintain that I need print books, if I love getting an electronic version so much? Because e-books can’t do what paper books do best for me: serve as reference books that demand looking in multiple places at once. I don’t rank “the tactile sensation of paper and the smell of a new (or old, ugh) book” as the positive qualities that paper books offer. Incidentally, I am frustrated that people do not think about the tactile qualities of e-book readers and tablets and their computers, ever. At least no one’s talking about them. Reading PDFs on my 27″ desktop monitor has a certain physical quality that I really enjoy (that big screen where I can read about 3 side by side and move them around!), and my Kindle has some awesome tactile qualities that I really love. (Being approximately the same reading experience on the page as a small paperback book is particularly great, because it is nostalgia central for me.)

So, because of this lack of ability to conveniently and easily keep multiple pages “marked” (often with fingers, right?) to flip back and forth between easily, or even look at them semi-simultaneously (I know I’m not the only one who kind of keeps both sections of the book half-open when I’m looking back and forth), I cannot give up paper books. This is a key feature for at least 50% of what I read and it’s so important that if an e-book does it poorly, I am not going to put up with it.

Most of my experience is with PDFs on the computer and the Kindle, but I haven’t found any electronic book that does footnotes well – I’m talking about endnotes here too. The Kindle tries and fails pretty miserably. The process is so slow that it is nothing like mimicking flipping back and forth between the endnote section and the page you’re reading. PDF hotlinks are pretty much as bad, or worse.

So what I use my Kindle largely for, right now, is reading some stuff that I don’t have to read too hard (news, fiction, short or light non-fiction), and for previewing books that I have to buy in physical format.

The ones I can’t buy on the Kindle (even though yes, a version is available): Reference-style books. Any book with a lot of foonotes. Programming or technical books. (seriously, who wants to try to view code examples on a page that small?) Any book that needs to be larger format to be readable. Books with a lot of pictures. (Duh.)

Books for “school” (i.e. related to my dissertation or other research) fall into this category too: I fill them with post-it notes and frequently have to flip between sections when I’m writing, keep track of many pages that I’m using all at once, referring to earlier or later sections, using the abundant footnotes. There’s no way I can look at this stuff on an e-reader, or on a computer.

Yes, a PDF viewer on my large monitor that let me keep pages from the same book open in new windows all right next to each other would be helpful, but as far as I know this doesn’t exist. Tabs wouldn’t cut it. The problem with “flipping” between foonote links and a page, or between tabs, is just too slow. E-book don’t give me the speed that paper books do.

Honestly, I would be a happy camper if someone were to solve this ergonomic problem and let me buy more e-books to free up valuable apartment space. O’Reilly books are a particular offender. But I’m not holding my breath here; like being a PPC user, am I relegated to a shrinking and soon-to-be obsolete “user” or “consumer” base here? I hope not.

5 thoughts on “footnotes: paper books still do it better”

  1. I’m with you on this. Unlike music and film, there is a point with a phsyical version of a book. The e-reader tech is still young and I’m sure it won’t take many years to see it reach the refinement we’re seeing with smartphones compared to how they looked in the beginning.

    But I expect there will be some technological solution for the paper book as well. Maybe some kind of print-on-demand that could give you a physical copy of an e-book if you wanted. You could then recycle it when you’ve read it, finished your course or whatever, and keep the electronic copy. A printed book that is actually a copy of an e-book shouldn’t inspire too much nostalgia.

    Or maybe it’s just a matter of interaction design of the e-readers. Your problem with flipping to and from the endnotes seems like it could be solved pretty easily that way.

  2. I haven’t played around with e-books much; I don’t have a Kindle or anything. But, just comparing PDFs on my computer, and what I imagine the Kindle experience to be, to physical books, I think that when it comes to research or other academic reading, it has to be physical books.

    It’s great to have articles in PDF form; I can carry a gazillion of them at once, on my external HD, and flip through them with Alt+Tab, keeping multiple ones open. They take up less physical space than photocopied ones – and, scanning is free where photocopying is not.

    The downside, of course, being, as you say, the inability to stick in sticky-notes or anything (except in the newest PDFs, and not the ones I’ve scanned myself, because I don’t scan with OCR, and I don’t go out of my way to bother scanning with sticky-note functionality or whatever), and the difficulty of dealing with footnotes or endnotes. Well, endnotes in particular. Footnotes are right there at the bottom of the PDF page.

    Now, on the Kindle, and this is half the reason I didn’t bother getting a Kindle or Nook this summer, if I understand right, not only are there (apparently, as you describe) issues with footnotes and endnotes, but there aren’t even page numbers to cite as consistent with the print version of the book – i.e. so that you can cite it and others can go to the print version and find what you’re referencing. This, for me, is a huge problem.

    So, yes, for now, I’ll stick with my PDFs in multiple windows, and a pile of books next to me, each flagged with numerous post-it notes.

    And, if the world does in fact start to shift more and more to e-books, I don’t expect that I’ll be getting rid of my physical book collection any time soon. I’ve already spent money on them, I already have them, and most I would assume are either very expensive in e-book format or not available at all, as they’re art books (as you were saying about pictures), academic books, Japanese books, etc.

  3. Mike> Actually, U of M has this thing called Espresso (Expresso?) book printing kiosk that will print out ebooks on demand for you. It prints things that are in the public domain from the U of M/Google Books/Hathi Trust project (AFAIK). It’s right in the undergraduate library, although I am not sure how many people know it’s there or use it. It’s pretty cool though – and cheap.

    And you’re right, doesn’t it seem like this endnote thing (and related other major usability issues) would be trivial to fix? But I’m not sure it is. What makes it so easy in a book is due to the book’s very material nature. The material nature of ebook readers (at least currently) and especially computers really does not lend itself to this. So I wonder 1) how fast it will be fixed, and 2) how it will be fixed. I really, really, really hope that the “how it will be fixed” isn’t something like “people will just have to get used to how we’re doing it,” which does tend to happen. Although smartphones have more *stuff* in them now, I certainly wouldn’t call them very usable. I just got very *used* to them. Then again, I do think it’s interesting that Japan has generally held on stubbornly to the original keitai design because it is just *so* much easier to type in Japanese with the numerical keypad than on a QWERTY keyboard. I don’t have some profound comment to make on that. I just remember being very frustrated that I couldn’t find a phone last time around that had a keyboard, something I am addicted to here in the US (because I use my phone like a mini computer with very poor usability) – but then it was explained to me why later, and I thought, well that does make a lot of sense. After all, I became very, very fast typing in Japanese on my normal keitai. It was only English that sucked.

  4. Travis> You make an *excellent* point that I had actually never thought of – I have such blinders on! PAGE NUMBERS!! You have just convinced me that there is absolutely no way I could use academic books (or even ones I want to cite anywhere) on my Kindle. Unless there is secretly a function for finding out which “page” you’re on – but I doubt it, because I haven’t found it yet. And you’d have to specify, are you talking about hardback, paperback, different editions… oh god, the problem is awful!

    Regarding PDFs, I still argue that footnotes are a big problem. The reason is that the page doesn’t always fit properly on the screen and involves some scrolling – I’m talking even on my 27″ monitor. SERIOUSLY.

    Finally, as a tip – the commenting/sticky notes have nothing to do with OCR. You can do it on any PDF. The issue is that many people just scan and make without thinking. (Or have no idea what the functionality of Acrobat is.) In Acrobat, you can make any PDF commentable/stickynotable in Reader, very easily (among other things – like enabling saving text entered into forms). On the other hand, if you have Acrobat and don’t mind its memory intensive ways of working (at least I assume this is what slows down, again, even my brand new stupidly overpowered machine – I don’t think it’s really using up the CPU displaying things here) – you can comment and sticky and save *anything* that doesn’t have a lot of security features added to it (password, etc). Actually, I’m not sure if a password would even keep you from doing it (I haven’t run into a document like that).

    So if I want to comment away on my JSTOR PDFs, I typically use Acrobat these days as default (especially because the new interface has made it impossible for me to find out thus far how to enable Reader commenting – HONESTLY!). Since you’re in school, you may be able to get a heavily discounted version if you don’t already have it; or if you want to buy any of the CS5 packages, I think it comes with all of them.

  5. Sure, a lot of the things you do with books are definitely very much tied to the physical paper format. But interaction design based too closely on real-world objects is usually crap anyway. Some abstraction will be needed to make it work, which is why I think it’s doable for most problems.

    I also expect these things to change when readers have evolved away from the screen-in-a-frame format. That’s more like a clay tablet than a book. Bendable thin screens can probably be used with some of their unqiue, more book- or paper-like physicality to make better adaptions of book tricks.

    Smart phones are something you get used too, yes. But at the same time they’re at the forefront of interaction design. I see a lot of experimentation and smart implementation going on. Swiping and pinching is something that seems to be very intuitive. Finding more interactions like those will probably help. Unless someone patents them of course…

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