Cites & Insights: Crawford at Large
ISSN 1534-0937
Libraries · Policy · Technology · Media

Selection from Cites & Insights 4, Number 10: August 2004

Feedback Special

Following Up on Ebooks

Walt Crawford and others

This isn’t a proper ebooks/etext update since it’s based on direct and indirect feedback on the last such update. This also isn’t a typical Feedback section because I’m including comments on other reports noted in some of the feedback.

Dorothea Salo at Caveat Lector

Salo posted a weblog entry June 20 that included kind comments on Cites & Insights and summarized the last Ebooks, Etext & PoD section as “a quite long and impressive slagging of ebooks (with, it must be said, some grudging admissions of their use in certain areas; Walt Crawford’s no blind dogmatist).” Salo understands print book design—she notes a wonderful (awful!) instance in which a library school professor marked down one of her papers for employing the standard (but fading) print-typography convention of not indenting the first paragraph after a heading. (I always shudder a little when I see a magazine or book that doesn’t follow this convention; it just looks sloppy. I suspect Salo’s going to be unhappy with the oblique heading portion above: Friz Quadrata doesn’t have an italic version so Word obliques the text.) But Salo has “cast [her] own lot with electronic text,” and expects to work at making such texts better than they are now. Great; we need more good etext designers.

She started off with “fish in barrels,” confessing that she didn’t understand why I included a squib on a Michigan Tech Lode piece that used pop-up books as an example of what we could lose if books moved to ebook form. The answer is simple and explains why I didn’t comment on the piece: Whimsy. I do that sometimes. I think popup books should dissuade us from adopting ebooks (when they make sense) just as much as romantic horse carriage rides in Central Park should have dissuaded people from adopting automobiles.

Salo offered a longer commentary on my commentary on Paul Mercierca’s article from VALA 2004. I’m quoting the post in full (with Salo’s explicit permission).

I think Walt Crawford does a bit of rhetorical violence in his summary of one recent conference article (Paul Mercieca, “E-book Acceptance”).

The article is about reading class materials onscreen versus in print, that old chestnut that will never go away in my lifetime. I rarely see the print snobs conceding that familiarity with the medium is part of the problem here, that people won't read extended texts onscreen simply because they're not used to it. That, however, will take care of itself in a few decades, so I'm not terribly worried about it.

Crawford trots out the old etext-causes-eyestrain argument, barely noting that it relates to PDFs only. What he doesn't say, though the article clearly does, is that students evinced much less eyestrain and general annoyance when presented with a Microsoft Reader text—a text, in other words, designed for onscreen reading.

I know this seems an obvious conclusion. Design for the medium, improve readability. Ever seen incunabula? They're wretched, from a readability perspective, because cut type just doesn't have the same affordances as pen-and-ink, and the first typefaces were slavish imitations of manuscript hands. Once printing got away from needing to look just like manuscripts, readability improved fairly rapidly.

The first onscreen-versus-print usability test I ever read about, though, utterly ignored questions of appropriateness of design to medium, pitting a color print copy of a popular newsmagazine against a grotty black-and-white (not even grayscale, if I recall correctly!) scan-to-PDF. They crowed mightily on the basis of that stupidly skewed test that onscreen reading would never, ever catch on. I'm deeply suspicious of print-versus-onscreen deathmatches now. I frankly don't believe the speed difference Crawford cites; I want to know how those numbers were arrived at.

I myself cheerfully concede that I read PDFs slowly onscreen. The typical PDF—Cites and Insights no exception—isn't designed for that! A well-designed web page, however, reads as quickly (in my admittedly subjective estimation) as print. An MS Reader ebook—well, I admit I get dumped out of immersion because of design flaws (both in MS Reader and books tailored to it); I know much too much about .lit, there's no two ways about that. I used to read decently-designed .lit books on the planes home from Cleveland, however, and they felt pretty much printlike to me.

Nor do I completely buy Jakob Nielsen's line on this subject, as Nielsen's own site demonstrates that he wouldn't know a readable onscreen design if it bit him in tender spots.

(And no, if you're wondering, Crawford won't do an HTML version of C&I. I asked. Not only did I ask, I offered to do the conversion and design work for him, being an opportunistic sort of wench who could make good use of the wide exposure such a task would give me. I'm not angry about it—even if I were, I'd have no particular right to be—just disappointed. Though I admit the print-on-demand book idea he's playing with is probably better for him.) the end of that snippet, Crawford asks peevishly why on earth anyone should make reluctant undergraduates read onscreen. Oh, boy, questions begged! Here are a few of my answers:

Ø       The material is not available in print, or can't be got at except electronically owing to travel requirements or rarity or fragility or whatever. Libraries and archives haven't been undertaking digitization projects for their health, after all. There honestly is stuff online that can't be got at any other reasonable way. If it's good, relevant stuff—I'd make them read it, sure.

Ø       If I knew in advance that a student of mine was blind or heavily visually disabled, I would intentionally skew my syllabus toward non-PDF electronic materials for accessibility's sake. It's just the right thing to do. Of course I'd also be on the horn to DAISY to see what my options were for print-only materials. But if the question is "would I force my sighted students to read onscreen so that their blind colleague would have an easier time?" the answer is an unequivocal yes.

Ø       The material was designed for onscreen perusal such that printing it is lossy. Heavily hyperlinked texts lose data when printed. If I expect my students to tool about a bit and click some links, I have no particular compunction about telling them so. I adduce the Cornell Digital Imaging Tutorial as something I'd make students read onscreen.

Ø       The material is interactive. I'm going to get whacked on this one, I know it, because interactivity is one of the buzzwords that the hypertext folks use, and (to tell the truth) I've not much more use for them than Crawford. (Though I did enjoy Hamlet on the Holodeck despite the horrid title. Admittedly, though, I read it in a roleplaying context rather than a purely literary one.) The truth is, though, simple little things like the HTML-form-based quizzes in the Cornell tutorial I just linked are interactive, and they're worthwhile.

Ø       I am making a point about information literacy, online and off-. How the hell are we supposed to teach our students that they can't believe everything they read anywhere, especially but not entirely online, if we never tell them to read anything online?

Because I am one of those evil e-text proponents, I would assign onscreen reading just to get students familiar with it. I doubt, however, that Crawford would back me on this one, and he’s quite within his rights not to.

First a technological aside. This is the first time I’ve used the OCR functionality on my inexpensive multifunction printer except for a casual test. I didn’t expect much, given that the OCR recognition is part of a software suite thrown in with a scanner/copier/printer that cost $150 and does great work. It took me two minutes, tops, to clean up the scan (printed in single-column proportional type after downloading as text from Caveat Lector). There were no errors in the text itself. The time was spent eliminating extra punctuation elements, restoring italics, and changing the styles to Cites & Insights standards. I’m impressed.

Now, as to responses—noting that, as I emailed Salo, I didn’t think I was “slagging” ebooks. I thought it was, on the whole, a friendly summary. Is reading long texts on-screen simply a matter of getting used to it? I don’t believe so, but that’s my belief, not proof. Perhaps the next generation’s eyes and minds really have mutated enough so they’re comfortable with reading into projected light. I can’t prove otherwise.

My comments did note that eyestrain occurred when reading PDF documents. If I failed to note that Microsoft Reader text did better, it’s because I overlooked it and was trying to keep the summary short. (Here’s what the paper says: “The students suggested that [Microsoft Reader format] led to less eyestrain than the PDF chapters…” It doesn’t say the students weren’t annoyed: They still preferred print.) I agree that text designed for onscreen reading will work better than crude adaptations from print, or at least that it should. I’m not encouraged by the sheer flood of Arial/Helvetica I see in online applications; I am encouraged by how well ClearType works in some cases.

The speed difference I cited was taken directly from the paper. If Salo reads well designed on-screen text as rapidly and with as much retention as she does well-designed print, great. I don’t (even on the rare occasions when I see well designed on-screen text), and apparently most people studied to date haven’t, but that could change. Since I’m no great fan of Jakob Nielsen and regard his schoolbook-text site as pretty horrendous from a reading perspective, I’m not going to argue with Salo on that one.

Why did I turn down Salo’s offer? That’s complicated, but there are two primary reasons:

Ø    I don’t want to maintain two versions of each issue.

Ø    I do care about how Cites & Insights looks and how much paper it uses for those who read the lengthy issues in print, and PDF lets me maintain the layout and typography I want. It’s not fancy, but it’s mine—and it uses paper efficiently.

My whole set of reasons for using PDF is in the Cites & Insights FAQ.

I did ask why libraries or universities should force students to read on-screen. As I read the article, the cases considered were pure substitutions of on-screen text for printed text, and I didn’t see the point. Dorothea Salo provides six answers to the general question. They are not answers I saw in the original article. I think they are all good answers—not to make students convert to ebooks on a general basis, but to use etext in appropriate circumstances, including the circumstance of learning about etext and on-screen readability.

I believe there are quite a few areas in which etext makes sense. I’ve always said that, even as I’ve argued against those who believe print books are on their way out in general. Dorothea Salo provides a few specific cases in one specific area. There are many others, to be sure.

John Dupuis: Safari Books in Long-Term Use

I discussed another VALA paper by Wendy Abbott and Kate Kelly, part of which studied the use of 90 ebooks from Safari Books over a two-month period. I wasn’t impressed by the fact that 36% of that small collection, which had been selected for its audience, was used over two months by an audience of IT students—surely students who would flock to etext. But I also noted, “these are early days!”—maybe because Safari Books’ technology-oriented approach, where people really only want a few pages out of a book, strikes me as one of the most plausible ebook niches.

John Dupuis (York University) offered a longer-term report on York’s Safari implementation. He’s the computer science & information technology bibliographer; York has five user licenses for 150 Safari titles, and the titles have all been added to York’s online catalog. (Er, catalogue, since York is a Canadian university.) I’m excerpting here:

Just a few weeks ago my University Librarian asked me for our stats so far after two years… June 2004 has accounted for another 2000 or so page reads in 247 sessions, not bad for a slow month.

Here’s what I sent her:

For 2003-2004 (i.e., Sept. 1, 2003 to May 31, 2004), 9 months:

Number of page reads: 29,511. [List of most popular books follows, beginning with Programming Microsoft .NET at 1,331 page reads and including 10 other books with more than 500 page reads.]

Total sessions: 3,157.

Average session length: 9 minutes 17 seconds.

Number of rejected session requests: 338.

2,865 successful keyword queries; 143 unsuccessful queries.

The previous year (September 1, 2002 to August 31, 2003) showed slightly fewer page reads, half as many sessions, and roughly the same number of keyword queries.

At my request, Dupuis did a little more investigation and added this information:

Top 10% books represent approximately 34% of hits (10%th book had 465 hits)

Top 20%: 45% (278 hits for 20%th book)

Top 50%: 81% (148 hits for the book at the median point).

This looks more or less like I would expect, given that I tried to balance popularity with general coverage. The advantage, of course, with the Safari model is that this summer I will be able to swap out the underperforming titles that I selected last year and replace them with ones that I hope will be more used. There are several books that I selected that have a very small number of hits, say under 10.

I’m delighted Dupuis sent this report. In the second year of use, where there are probably fewer accidental hits and more intentional use, it looks as though a typical session involved looking at nine or ten pages of technology books after finding the appropriate pages through keyword searches. That’s how these books normally do get used: Few people read Inside Dreamweaver MX cover to cover! Even assuming that each session involved only one book, that means more than 3,000 uses of 150 books over the course of an academic year; that’s success by any measure I’d care to use. Dupuis also seems to have evaded the 80:20 problem (where you’d expect the top 20% of books to represent 80% of use); 148 page views or more for each of half of the collection in one year represents wonderfully varied use by academic library standards.

If you’re looking for the “but,” it’s not coming. Safari’s model makes sense for that kind of book, and these massive, rapidly changing manuals make more sense for most readers in ebook form. I’m delighted to see it’s working in the longer run and hope that Bond University in Australia is doing as well with their Safari ebooks.

Reporting on Ebook Appliance Experiments—and More

Bill Drew extracted my question as to why we haven’t heard many results of the grant-funded ebook-appliance experiments in public libraries and posted it to the LITA-L list, adding: “Anybody aware of any reports or anyone willing to tell us the results of these experiments? Are all of these devices not in the local landfill? I do read ebooks by the way. I have several dozen on my PDA. I am currently reading some Star Trek fan fiction.”

Ted Koppel (TLC) responded noting an Open E-book Conference in March 2004. “The clear message from that meeting was that dedicated hardware devices were all but obsolete, and that the delivery of e-books was clearly pointing to hardware-agnostic, software based control mechanisms (PDF with DRM, one or two other approaches) as opposed to hardware.” As to whether the use of ebook appliances justified the grant-money expenditure in libraries: “Several speakers at the March conference made the point that the e-book industry has to have the courage and patience to try a lot of approaches and not be afraid if some of them fail. E-books represent a delivery mechanism in its infancy.”

That sounds fine as long as those studies were being funded by the ebook industry. My impression is that (with one or two possible exceptions) that wasn’t the case. Getting someone else to spend their money to see which of your approaches is worthwhile is certainly a form of market research, but it’s not usually one that libraries would be involved in. The last sentence is a golden oldie dating back to the first days of etext more than a decade ago and will continue to be a standing comment until (unless?) ebooks establish themselves. Maybe that’s the way it should be.

Phyllis Davis and Mark Beatty:  WPLC Ebook Project

I’m coupling these responses because both point to the Wisconsin Public Library Consortium Ebook Project. Mark (WILS) was up first:

If you haven’t already you might want to check out the reports generated for the Wisconsin Public Library Consortium ebook project. Here’s the link to get to all the reports:

The full Josh Morrill [paper] is quite excellent. The emphasis is on netLibrary because that’s what the project realized was the best service to use. But there is also some ebook device (rocket books) information.

[An aside, paraphased, is that some of the library systems might have purchased more ebook appliances—but once Gemstar took over and imposed tight proprietary constraints, they chose not to.]

Phyllis Davis (South Central Library System, Madison) sent email a few days later:

You can find a report on our ebook grant project (2000-2002) at: [same address]

Your best bet is probably to look at “E-book Project Final Report: Executive Summary.” Other reports mounted there might also be of interest. The main thrust of our project was netLibrary, but we looked at REB 1100 readers, too.

I don’t think that public libraries who looked at these technologies hid any dirty laundry so much as moved on when it was obvious we had learned what we could and made the decision not to invest further. We are still growing our shared netLibrary collection and it is still getting a lot of use.

I suspect Ms. Davis’ comment expresses the reality of most projects (I’ve only heard from one other one). If I insinuated “dirty laundry,” I apologize: It was inadvertent. Notably, Wisconsin’s public librarians—a great bunch, as I know from experience—had the smarts to “move on” when the time was right and to avoid sinking more money into a device-and-DRM combination that was so clearly anti-library. NetLibrary is another one of those niches that can make sense for libraries (I’ve called them “pseudobooks,” a description some netLibrary people have agreed with—like Safari Books, cases where you expect the reader to use small portions of a book rather than reading the whole thing from start to finish). I also suspect that most of the grant money was well used; one good use for grants is to carry out experiments that might fail.

I had missed the WPLC project reports, an oversight that I remedied, reading the two-page final report, the seven-page ebook evaluation, and Joshua H. Morrill’s WATF Grant Evaluation Report (30 pages including 10 pages of appendices). I recommend both of them (see address in Mark Beatty’s notes).

The portion of the final report discussing experience with ebook appliances is interesting, although it’s hard to connect it to the survey evaluation that follows. The report says that 207 completed surveys were received—but the evaluation only seems to involve 87 users, a much smaller number. The report says most people found the readers satisfactory and that over half of those trying readers gave them a 4 or 5 on a five-point “least to most preferred” scale—lower than hardback books but tied with paperback books. That section of the report concludes:

At this writing, there is considerable concern about the viability of the current generation of portable readers and the number of titles that can be loaded on them. In addition, the current model is expensive and requires specific titles to reside on specific readers, which results in a number of problems for libraries. WPLC members have concluded that while individual members may choose to offer this technology, the consortium will no longer invest in it.

The netLibrary experience was more positive: Over the two-year grant period, 4,138 netLibrary ebooks had been used nearly 31,000 times. In terms of raw circulation, this makes the consortial netLibrary collection three times as popular as the twenty million book and serial volumes held by the libraries in the group. That’s a tricky comparison—as the report recognizes—but there’s little question that netLibrary was and probably still is working out.

I can only assume that the survey evaluation available on the website is only part of the overall evaluation. Not only does it have 87 rather than 207 users, I find only 31 selecting 4 or 5 for the ebook format, hardly “over half.” By comparison, 49 of 87 chose 4 or 5 for paperbacks and 69 of 86 chose 4 or 5 for hardbound books, with 50 choosing 5 (“Most preferred”). Interestingly, most of the responses were from Baby Boomers (44 of 87 were 40 to 55 years old) and 72 of 87 were female.

Morrill’s report is entirely about netLibrary use and perceptions. It considers 529 survey responses in great detail, and is well worth studying if you’re looking at netLibrary use. Most people search for specific items when using netLibrary; most dialup users don’t believe they’d use netLibrary more with wideband connections or if they had better training; most (74%) think netLibrary is a useful resource—and slightly over half wanted a larger collection. More than 85% of a smaller focus group say their libraries should continue to fund netLibrary service, find it valuable, and would recommend it to friends; just under half would use it more if they could download the ebooks to their hard drives—but most would not use it more if they could use it on a PDA or ebook appliance.

Tom Peters: Rochester and Digital Talking Books

A series of email exchanges began with a misunderstanding. My question about the grant-funded experiments included the note that “They got a lot of publicity when libraries were buying hundreds (thousands?) of REB devices.” Peters noted that the Rochester study involved dozens of ebook appliances, “not hundreds or thousands,” and said he’d like to know about any grant-funded project that did include such large purchases. I clarified that I was speaking of the totality of library experimental ebook projects, not any given project.

That misunderstanding clarified, Tom noted that he really didn’t know whether any U.S. libraries are still using dedicated readers, but he does have a “vague sense that more-or-less dedicated reading devices still maintain at least a toehold in several nations. China, Japan, and Australia come to mind, but I haven’t been paying close attention.” There’s certainly still interest in ebook appliances in Japan, where the script, reading habits, and love of technology all make for a very different marketplace—thus, Sony’s hot new eink-based appliance is a Japanese unit, not currently intended for sale in the U.S.

I had looked at the Rochester site (www.lib. in the past, at one point noting it as a good site for a variety of information on ebooks. I had not, at the time, been able to get Susan Gibbons’ “Ebooks: Some concerns and surprises” article, which appeared in portal: Libraries and the Academy 1:1 (2001): 71-75. That article is now available and does make interesting reading at a three-year remove. The project involved 30 ebook appliances at six libraries (two SoftBooks and three Rockets at each library).

According to the study, people did not report eyestrain as a problem. The main problems had to do with the inflexible nature of the appliances and their downloading and book-purchase methodologies. How hostile were the suppliers? When one vice president of a digital content provider was asked whether it was possible for libraries to circulate his company’s digital content, he responded: “No, that would be stealing profits from our company and the authors associated with us.”

Gibbons saw Stephen King’s Riding the Bullet as a turning point for ebooks and said “many more ebook-only titles are in the works.” She noted that in 1999 there were “only two portable, dedicated electronic book readers on the market.” [Emphasis added for pure irony. Times change.] Her article is worth reading as a success story.

The Rochester web site is still there, with survey results and other commentaries.

What about digital talking books? Tom Peters is involved in a project to test some of the dedicated digital talking book devices in the field; details are at Most of the devices are designed for use by blind and visually impaired users, who now mostly use audiocassettes. Quoting Peters’ email, frequently mentioned advantages of digital talking books include:

Ø    Better sound quality that does not deteriorate with repeated listening

Ø    The ability to speed up the playback without the “chipmunk” effect

Ø    Improved portability

Ø    No need to flip and/or change audiocassette tapes.

LC’s National Library Service for the Blind and Physically Handicapped (NLS) is “actively engaged in developing a dedicated DTB device that it plans to distribute to authenticated blind and visually impaired readers throughout the U.S. Many other developed nations already have launched national DTB programs. As far as I know, most are using specially designed portable CD players.”

Karen Schneider asked why dedicated players were needed. Tom Peters noted that NLS wanted to move directly from cassette to flash memory, leapfrogging CD technology, and that they need to comply with the Chaffee Amendment, which calls for “specialized formats exclusively for use by blind or other persons with disabilities.” There’s a large, complicated debate as to whether a specialized device is needed. This is an interesting area, one that will probably pop up in the future.

Closing Comments

Some ebook niches make good sense already. Others should succeed if the right designs, devices and rights handling can be developed. Some readers from some generations may take more avidly to “reading from the screen” than others. Dorothea Salo’s set of reasons to “make” students read etext offers new light; the reports from Wisconsin and Rochester are interesting. I welcome additional reports.

If you’re one of those who believe I’m out to trash all etext and ebook usage, maybe you’re having trouble comprehending what you read on the screen. That’s never been true. If you believe I’m being inconsistent and won’t establish an absolute, firm, unbending stance on just exactly where and when ebooks and etext make sense—well, I’m not quite old enough yet for that level of settled wisdom. Some day, maybe I’ll be sure that I know exactly how things are and always will be, with no room for change, but that day’s not here yet. I trust it will be long in coming.

Cites & Insights: Crawford at Large, Volume 4, Number 10, Whole Issue 53, ISSN 1534-0937, is written and produced by Walt Crawford, a senior analyst at RLG. Opinions herein do not reflect those of RLG. Comments should be sent to Cites & Insights: Crawford at Large is copyright © 2004 by Walt Crawford: Some rights reserved.

All original material in this work is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Non­Commercial License. To view a copy of this license, visit or send a letter to Creative Commons, 559 Nathan Abbott Way, Stanford, California 94305, USA.