Tag Archives: debate

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.