Tag Archives: reading

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!

more room for annotations

Poking around on the Kindai Digital Library, as I am wont to do, I came across yet another book that leaves ample room for reader annotations without providing any of its own (where they would usually appear). This is a page from 華胥国物語 : 履軒中井先生遺稿:

For comparison, here is a page from Murasaki Shikibu nikki (1892) that does have annotations in that spot:

As you can see, too, there’s quite a difference between working with the first edition of a mid-Meiji book (my photo, immediately above), a microfilm version (not pictured), and a scanned and PDFed version of the microfilm version (the first image in this post). Thankful as I am for the Kindai Digital Library, its source material could be a lot better. (Post forthcoming on their new efforts to digitize and what a difference it makes. I’d like to point out that that photo was taken with Instagram on my iPhone, not some kind of high quality camera, and is yet still higher quality and more readable than most of what is on KDL.)

Annotation and Murasaki Shikibu nikki

I recently looked up Murasaki Shikibu nikki (The Diary of Murasaki Shikibu) on the Kindai Digital Library (Digital Library from the Meiji Era) as part of my research in revising a dissertation chapter for further publication. I found an 1893 printing and was interested in how the diary was being presented to readers at the time – this was one of the first times it was typeset and published on a mass commercial scale. (The diary itself is from the late 10th and early 11th centuries, written by the author of The Tale of Genji.) Because I’m studying the printing of Higuchi Ichiyō’s diary – a modern woman writer who was compared to Murasaki herself – I’m interested in how other women’s diary literature was being talked about and published as a context.

Anyway, I found no preface, footnotes, afterward, or annotations, so I was out of luck on that front. Except that the lack of annotations itself presented a fascinating problem in the case of this book. Instead of annotations along the top of the page with a line dividing them from the text, as was usual for classical texts being printed at this time, what we have is room for annotations that was intentionally left blank. In other words, this printing specifically made room for readers’ own annotations. Check it out:

 

Murasaki Shikibu nikki

 

We often think of digital texts as being uniquely interactive when compared with physical print books, but this 1893 edition shows that that is far from the case. It is a book that specifically invites – no, demands – reader interaction. Reading becomes a two-way activity here, both receiving and contributing, producing and consuming. It is a profoundly personal experience as well, with room for individualized comments and reflections, perhaps, along with jotting down notes to oneself to help understand the text. It is an experience that demands rereading as well – these are notes for further use, written down for future reference and rereading and rethinking. This book asks readers to contribute their own text, and legitimizes those individual interpretations as written upon its pages by providing an official space for them that runs alongside the legitimate text.

This is a remarkably different experience of reading than we might find in, say, a manuscript copy of that same diary from hundreds of years before (as it was originally circulated) or in a printed version with annotations already filled in. (Or even no annotations or room in the margins for them, although that would be extremely rare.) It is an experience that combines readership and authorship, and makes the reader into an editor and author him- or herself in the act of interactive reading.

Yet this book is not entirely unique. It simply presents an extreme case. There was recently an two-day conference on note-taking at Harvard’s Radcliffe Institute – entitled, appropriately enough, Take Note – and the focus of this event was on what I would call interactive reading, on readers’ annotations. Readers have been annotating texts – interacting with texts, modifying them and producing their own text in response – since perhaps the written word was invented. Practices may have changed over time and between cultures and languages, but marginalia and annotation have been, and are, alive and well. We might call the typeset, printed text a static thing, unlike mutable digital texts, but in practice, it is easily modified and given new and different meanings through readers’ interactions with pen and pencil.

In fact, I might go so far as to say that digital texts in the form of ebooks are actually less mutable, less interactive, than print books at this point in time. I have a Kindle and while I love reading on it, I still buy any book that I think I might interact with – that I might read slowly and carefully with pen and sticky note sin hand – in a paper version. Annotation may be possible, but it is not comfortable or, for me, practical. It’s a laborious process and can only handle highlighting and plain text, not sketches or diagrams. There is something freeing about the handwritten note or image, something that allows ideas to flow and take shape without restriction. Ebooks do not accommodate this now, although it’s certainly not impossible. It’s implemented badly or not at all.

There is no such restriction on the paper book: it is a good implementation for reading actively and interactively. It is far from static and stable; it is open to readers’ interpretations and analysis. In fact, it is a home for them. As Murasaki Shikibu nikki demonstrates, the page invites our interaction, not simply our passive consumption.

what books to read and how to read

I came across a book a while ago from 1912 entitled What Books to Read and How to Read when searching around in the university library basement. (Incidentally, this is where all of my wonderful finds come from – including the ones that make up the basis of my research!) It’s such a fascinating and still-relevant book that I’d like to introduce it here. (Full citation: David Pryde, LL.D. What Books to Read and How to Read: Being Suggestions for Those Who Would Seek the Broad Highways of Literature. New York and London: Funk and Wagnalls Company, 1912.)

The book starts off with the anxiety that is surely familiar to us: there is too much information out there, and it’s growing exponentially. It’s overwhelming. The number of books being printed is too much for any one human to deal with and the problem is only getting worse. What to do in the face of this?

Well, this book has an answer. First, how to read books. You don’t want to become a “dungeon of learning,” someone who reads a wide variety but can’t apply any of it to real life. Instead of just ingesting, investigate first. The advice reads like a library seminar on reliable sources and searching for research leads. Learn something about the author first. Read the preface carefully. Take a comprehensive survey of the table of contents – “if the preface is the appetizer, the table of contents is the bill of fare.”

Give your whole attention to whatever you read. “A book is a representation of the best workings of the author’s soul. In order to understand it, we must shut out our own circumstances, cast off our personal identity, and lose ourselves in the writer before us. We must follow him closely through all his lines of thought, understand clearly all his ideas, and enter into all his feelings. Anything less than this is not worthy of the name of reading.”

Be sure to note the most valuable passages as you read. Write out in your own language a summary of the facts you have noted.

Most important? Apply the results of your reading to your every-day duties.

This guide is a paean to close reading and taking books to heart. It’s a guide to knuckling down and processing information in a useful way, rather than simply succumbing to the overwhelming amount of books out there. It’s reading for use, not reading for reading’s sake.

The second half of the book involves a full bibliography of books you should read, and annotations of them. It’s a catalog of useful knowledge that everyone ought to be familiar with.

There is much to be said for going outside a set canon and reading widely, and for not relying on authoritative sources to tell you what to read. But I can’t help but wish there were an updated version of this book – and perhaps the “how to read” does not really need to be updated. Actually, the bibliography probably doesn’t need to be either. But it could be adapted and expanded to meet the specific contents of our information overload now. In any case, I found it remarkable that 100 years ago this year, someone was writing in a very 21st-century way about just the same problems that we wrestle with now, and over which many anxious words have been spilled.

Information. It’s always a problem. The question is what you’ll do about it. Say what you will about the contents of any particular bibliography, but the advice of Mr. Pryde is timeless.

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.

kawasaki reading room ・はじめに

I finally got a chance to visit the Kawasaki Reading Room at the new Jackie Gaughan Multicultural Center here at UNL. With it being summer, full of international travel (for those of us in Japan studies especially) and family events, it took me a while to get an introduction to the center.

The reading room is unique in the Asian-language libraries that I’ve visited here in the U.S. It’s not part of the UNL library system, and yet it is. The collection was started by a large donation from one individual – with diverse interests, let’s put it that way – but is now kept going by additional donations from all over. The collection is eclectic: zenshu of canonical literature; dictionaries and reference books; Japanese language test prep materials; a wall of manga; and a growing collection of tapes and DVDs of all kinds. (Death Note and Nobody Knows on the same shelf!)

As I type, the Kawasaki Reading Room’s collection is continuing to be integrated into the UNL library system, but much of it is not. Other shelves have handwritten “not for cataloging” signs on them. It’s a place in flux. And the library’s own relationship to it is hard to explain. It’s a “partner” but not “part of.” There are limitations on what kind of obligation that relationship can entail. It’s an opportunity for me, new librarian, to be learning about the complex realities of campus units and their varying degrees of integration with the central library system.

The Reading Room sadly has limited hours, but it’s welcoming and friendly. It may be small but that cozy space gives a sense of informality, where one can feel at home right away. When I visited I spent most of my time chatting with the director, Reiko Harpending, who was kind enough to give me a personal tour. While we talked, a mom brought in her elementary-school age son who wasted no time getting absorbed in a kids’ manga series. I felt like I was in a tiny but wonderful public library, one where almost everything is in Japanese.

This is in contrast to my experience before: I am a student at a large research university with an equally large Asian-language collection. It, too, has a physically odd relationship with the library in that it’s so isolated: it has its own 3 floors of stacks, for all Asian-language books, and its own office and cataloging area. It has its own reading lounge. This is all great. But not having been in an environment like this until graduate school, I couldn’t quite figure out why all of this had to be cordoned off from all of the other books in the library – ones in English, French, German, Russian, and so on, which were all mixed right in with each other. At this point, I chalk such things up to “an artifact of how Area Studies historically developed as fields.” On the other hand, though, the Asia Library is an integral part of U of M’s library system and is fully integrated with the library catalog system. There’s not really a question of whether the library budget can be used for the Asia Library’s projects; it’s a question of how much funding the Asia Library is getting to allocate as they will.

So why am I posting about the Kawasaki Reading Room? It’s a unique, friendly place, and I only wish it were open at hours other than 1-5pm on weekdays because I’d have spent some more time among the books and DVDs. I have a week left here in Nebraska, though, and one of my goals is to spend a good chunk of an afternoon there and do some personal research. I want to get a better sense of the collection, its shape and contents, and interesting finds that may be hiding around in there. On my first visit, I spotted a dictionary of naval terms while talking to Reiko that turned out to be the “property of the U.S. Navy” (don’t tell anyone!) and dated from WWII. I can’t wait to see what else is lurking there and to report back! With pictures. Stay tuned.

in which I acquire typographical empathy

Guys. I humbly apologize for forcing you to read monospace font of your browser’s (or OS’s) choice for the past year. I’ve learned the error of my ways.

From now on it’s serif all the way.

And I now supply Linux font defaults just in case, which I didn’t before out of ignorance. At least there’s something to try to fall back on before font-family: serif now.

Comfortable Reading With Aozora Bunko

I’ve started a guide to reading software (and browser recommendations) for reading texts from the volunteer-led collection of Japanese e-texts, Aozora Bunko 青空文庫.

Aozora is a wonderful resource, but the problem for anyone who’s read much Japanese fiction is that the reading orientation – and correct display of furigana (ruby) – leaves a lot to be desired. Reading in the browser limits the reader to long-lined left-to-right orientation, when in paperback we’d all be reading vertical, short-line, right-to-left (and probably in bunkobon 文庫本 format!). While getting furigana to show up properly in the browser helps a lot, we still need software to reorient and resize the text – not to mention allow us to read texts on devices other than our computers.

My guide will always be a work in process, so please do offer links to other software or tools that you know about.

Please check out my guide to browsers, ruby, PC/Mac and mobile software:

A Reader’s Guide to Aozora Bunko / 青空文庫読者へのガイド

quick note: digital reading coverage in Eureka 8/10

Eureka, a monthly poetry and criticism publication in Japanese, has a theme of “reading digital materials” for the August 2010 issue. If you’re in a position to do so, I recommend picking it up. There are a lot of interesting perspectives in here. Not least is the fact that it specifies “reading materials,” not “books,” and that kind of take on digital reading vs. print reading isn’t something I see enough of in English-language coverage.

Not to mention that Japan is living proof that the magazine industry is not only not dead, but will never die – at least not here. I had to wade through literally hundreds of different magazines in a corner bookstore in Ueno station to find my copy of this one.

The info in Japanese is ユリイカ2010年8月号・特集「電子書籍を読む!」 (“let’s read digital stuff!”) If anyone has a more eloquent translation for 書籍 please leave it in the comments. I am coming up empty at the moment.