[Web4lib] E-Readers: The Device Versus the Book
hgladney at gmail.com
Sun Jun 6 13:06:02 EDT 2010
Ref: gerrymck <gerry.mckiernan at gmail.com on the same topic, Sat, 5 Jun 2010
In 1987, an IBM Research Division task force (TF) in the San Jose laboratory
considered the topic of "the paperless office". Its (obvious) objective was
to recommend long-term IBM Research activities pertinent to the many
conjectured opportunities that, to this day, motivate an immense number of
reports and conjectured futures.
We quickly realized (I was a TF member) several things that seem still to be
true and applicable.
(1) Paper is a highly refined technology, with characteristics better
adapted to its prominent uses than any technology that we could foresee.
For instance, the realizable contrast ratio between marked and unmarked
areas is much greater than any screen technology. Its reflectivity
characteristics (scattering incident light diffusely instead of reflecting
it like a mirror) are superb for reading. You can fold it into your pocket,
or rip off whatever you want. And paper is manufactured in a wide range of
(2) There is an immense infrastructure supporting paper usage. For
instance, one of the largest civilian bureaucracies is devoted to moving
paper from place to place--the post office, and that has since been
supplemented by large private competitors.
(3) Even though ecological considerations make it popular to decry chewing
up forests to make paper (or chopsticks) the paper and wood product
industries are very efficient, producing economical products, and employing
large numbers of people.
(4) We have excellent facilities for preserving information on paper. In my
home, the technology is called bookshelves and filing cabinets. Even though
we have for about a decade known fail-safe and inexpensive methods for
preservation of digital documents, institutional inertia among those who
expressed interest in this need (e.g., professional librarians and
archivists) suggests that practical digital preservation will not occur in
the next decade or two. (Obvious speculations would address why this is the
(5) New technologies do not often replace established technologies, but
instead complement them. Many examples can be cited. (One counter-example
is that we no longer use horses except for amusement.)
It seems to me that none of these factors is much changed (on an economical
scale). Furthermore, the current noises about pricing electronic books,
coupled with their limited convenience (notwithstanding hyperbole from the
e-book industry) seem to me most unattractive. (For instance, scanning
portions of paper books for marking and sharing is easy and does not violate
lawful copyright privileges.)
Today, scholars, elementary school children, and many other people, are
skilled in deciding when to use paper and when to use digital technologies.
And getting better at such trade-offs!
Whenever I visit a conventional library or bookstore, I am impressed by the
number of other visitors. Although I do not know the statistics, I suspect
that these numbers are higher than ever, and will continue to climb--both in
the wealthy countries and in the third world.
Bottom line: absent improvements that I have not heard proposed, much less
promised, e-book technology will remain a marginal thing. Although I would
be pleased to see something better, I do not currently expect it in my
"Ushering in a watershed moment in personal reading"? I don't think so!
Best wishes, Henry
H.M. Gladney, Ph.D. http://home.pacbell.net/hgladney/ (408)867-3933
(personal) (408)940-7650 (professional)
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