Tag Archives: ebooks

Using Collections – Virtually

I heard a remark the other day that struck a cord – or, churned my butter, a bit.

The gist of it was, “we should make digital facsimiles of our library materials (especially rare materials) and put them online, so they spark library use when people visit to see them in person, after becoming aware of them thanks to the digitized versions.”

Now, at Penn, we have digitized a couple of Japanese collections: Japanese Juvenile Fiction Collection (aka Tatsukawa Bunko series), Japanese Naval Collection (in-process, focused on Renshū Kantai training fleet materials), and a miscellaneous collection of Japanese rare books in general.* These materials have been used both in person (thanks to publicizing them, pre- and post-digitization, on library news sites, blogs, and social media as well as word-of-mouth), and also digitally by researchers who cannot travel to Penn. In fact, a graduate student in Australia used our juvenile fiction collection for part of his dissertation; another student in Wisconsin plans to use facsimiles of our naval materials once they’re complete; and faculty at University of Montana have used our digital facsimile of Meiji-period journal Hōbunkai-sui (or Hōbunkai-shi).

These researchers, due to distance and budget, will likely never be able to visit Penn in person to use the collections. On top of that, some items – like the juvenile fiction and lengthy government documents related to the Imperial Navy – don’t lend themselves to using in a reading room. These aren’t artifacts to look over one page at a time, but research materials that will be read extensively (rather than “intensively,” a distinction we book history folks make). Thus, this is the only use they can make of our materials.

The digitization of Japanese collections at Penn has invited use and a kind of library visit by virtue of being available for researchers worldwide, not just those who are at Penn (who could easily view them in person and don’t “need” a digital facsimile), or who can visit the library to “smell” the books (as the person I paraphrased put it). I think it’s more important to be able to read, research, and use these documents than to smell or witness the material artifact. Of course, there are cases in which one would want to do that, but by and large, our researchers care more about the content and visual aspects of the materials – things that can be captured and conveyed in digital images – rather than touching or handling them.

Isn’t this use, just as visiting the library in person use? Shouldn’t we be tracking visits to our digital collections, downloads, and qualitative stories about their use in research, just as we do a gate count and track circulation? I think so. As we think about the present and future of libraries, and people make comments about their not being needed because libraries are on our smartphones (like libraries of fake news, right?), we must make the argument for providing content both physically and virtually. Who do people think is providing the content for their digital libraries? Physical libraries, of course! Those collections exist in the real world and come from somewhere, with significant investments of money, time, and labor involved – and moreover, it is the skilled and knowledgable labor of professionals that is required.

On top of all of this, I feel it is most important to own up to what we can and cannot “control” online: our collections, by virtue of being able to be released at all, are largely in the public domain. Let’s not put CC licenses on them except for CC-0 (which is explicitly marking materials as public domain), pretending we can control the images when we have no legal right to (but users largely don’t know that). Let’s allow for free remixing and use without citing the digital library/archive it came from, without getting upset about posts on Tumblr. When you release public domain materials on the web (or through other services online), you are giving up your exclusive right to control the circumstances under which people use it – and as a cultural heritage institution, it is your role to perform this service for the world.

But not only should we provide this service, we should take credit for it: take credit for use, visits, and for people getting to do whatever they want with our collections. That is really meaningful and impactful use.

* Many thanks to Michael Williams for his great blog posts about our collections!

citing from the kindle

My thanks to my colleague Toranosuke for pointing out this fundamental issue with the Kindle (and e-readers generally) and practices of citation.

The issue? It is a fundamental point: there are no page numbers that go along with Kindle books (or any book I read on the Kindle, whether from Project Gutenberg, Aozora Bunko, or elsewhere). There are “points” in the book, but because the font size can be changed, so can these “points” be changed along with it.

These are great for tracking one’s progress through a book while reading, and for bookmarking and jumping to different points in a text. (Though there are often so many thousands of points that for locating a specific spot – like one would do with a page number – it ends up being almost meaningless)

For many books I’d read in the Kindle – what I unfortunately refer to as “throwaway” books like light novels and light non-fiction – this isn’t a huge issue. But it isn’t a huge issue because I don’t care to cite them in other writing, for the most part.

It’s what’s been keeping my colleague from buying anything vaguely academic on the Kindle, and woke me up to this problem before I made what would perhaps be a wasteful purchase. If I’m writing anything from a paper to my dissertation to a blog post, I want, and need, to cite what I’m referring to. I often need to quote directly. But how am I to do this, with no set point of reference?

With Web pages, there are standards for citation, and this goes for online journals without page numbers as well. One can pinpoint a section and paragraph number. But with an e-book, the length is such that this becomes completely impractical.

This is an issue that e-readers are going to have to overcome to truly take over the book market. It’s not something that your average Kindle purchaser might think about, but it’s something that a significant community of readers depends on daily. And it raises serious technical and intellectual issues for the use of e-books in a “serious” way. (Now there’s a loaded word for you.) I wonder, is there anyone working on this, from the end of style guides all the way to those implementing e-readers and e-book standards? I have no answer to this, but I’d like to hear what my readers think.

finally: vertical text and aozora on the kindle!

Trying to figure out how to a) display vertical Japanese text on almost anything, and b) get Aozora texts on my Kindle in a way that makes for pleasant reading, has been driving me mad for some short time now.

One reason I bought a Kindle, in fact, was to have a convenient way to read books in Japanese. My options are either to order paperbacks from Japan at exorbitant shipping costs, or (especially if the books aren’t available in paperback anyway) carry around thick photocopies or bad PDF scans of works from large reference anthologies. Neither of these is a pleasant way to read a book. I love my 文庫本 just as much as the next person, but I think they’re the major factor in my continually worsening eyesight. If I keep reading them, I’m sure I’ll be blind within 5 years or so at this rate.

I was going to write a whole post here about how I wish I could get vertical text going (because this is much more comfortable for me to read), and how I was trying to devise some system for automatically converting books to Kindle-sized PDFs or even .mobi format.

Well, someone has – thank god – beaten me to it! I give you the simplest, free, web-based system for converting any Aozora book to Kindle-sized PDF, by pasting a link from Aozora into a box and downloading the PDF. It preserves ruby (furigana) and lets you choose a text size. (I recommend 大 because even 中 was giving me eye strain. Trust me, you don’t need the 文庫本 aesthetic on a Kindle screen.)

And with no further delay, here is the post from the friendly blogger at JapanNewbie who explains it all:

How I Use My Kindle

Please give him a big thanks when you visit!

Here’s a direct link to the PDF conversion site too:


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.