Tuesday, 21 December 2010

Paper, scissors, e-ink?

My second Christmas in the Graduate School Media Zoo has made me aware of the growing popularity of e-book readers, with the most popular request to Santa being for Amazon's new Kindle. I have been using the Library's Kindle 3 (and the 2nd generation Kindle that came before it) for some time and have formed a largely positive impression of its usefulness as a tool for scholarship.

The Kindle is a small device, but its capacity to store a large amount of text is liberating for someone used to carrying around a backbreaking quantity of books and papers. The Kindle 3's native support for PDF files makes reading journal articles easy, although the fixed format sometimes means that articles from some of the larger journals are best read with the device on its side (zooming means scrolling). The ability to highlight and annotate text is essential for the academic market, and the Kindle allows hightlights, notemaking, and even sharing of passages via twitter and facebook for those who like to do their academic networking online. There are been some worries about the proprietary format of kindle e-books and their link with Amazon, but I have so far been able to put everything I want on the Kindle by using Calibre to convert files to mobi pocket format. In general I can see the e-reader being an invaluable tool for the researcher who travels a lot, or likes to work in a range of locations.

Amazon's e-books are not only available to those of us with a Kindle device. The Kindle app means that e-books for Kindle can be read on your iPhone, Android smartphone, laptop, iPad or iPod touch. I have used this for teaching this year as well as for my own reading, and I know a few people who have managed to buy academic books cheaply in this way.

The popularity of these devices among academics has opened the debate over the future of the book and the role of the Library in a digital world. Robert Darnton's excellent book on the future of the book explores the debate thoroughly and with an open mind, seeing Libraries as 'centers of learning' rather than 'warehouses of books', and is available in both Kindle and codex formats. I tried before I bought by reading a free sample on the Kindle app, a perk of electronic reading.

I think it's fair to say that most of us won't abandon paper just yet. Many readers, myself included, take pleasure in the book as an object as well as in its content. There are still a few things you can't do on a Kindle such as flicking through a book to get the gist, or flicking frequently between appendices/notes and text. Either e-reading devices will accommodate these behaviours or perhaps reading habits will change. But the Kindle itself, and its accessories, have succeeded in replicating some of the luxury and pleasure of reading. And I'm hoping overweight luggage will be a thing of the past!

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