Wednesday, March 30, 2011

What will be the iTunes of the eBook?

Forbes: The end of the printed book?

Tim O'Reilly: Not exactly. I think we're seeing a transformation of the marketplace. The biggest challenge is not the death of print; it's the question of how books will change. Take the map: The print map has largely gone away, and online mapping has become the norm. In the process, what we expect from maps has changed: They include directions, nearest gas stations, nearby merchants. The book's format will change, sure, but so will the very form.

The format of the book is in a state of change. Right now, the ebook reader resembles a thin stone tablet and the ebook itself mostly closely resembles photocopies of pages more than anything else. Coincidentally, if you want to save a passage from your ebook to share with others, the easiest way to do it is to photocopy your screen (via David Fiander).

While it is admittedly very important that we pay attention to ebook readers and the ebook file formats they use we must not neglect the software that readers will use to store, organize, and access their collections. Otherwise, we will be like the music industry grappling with iTunes and the movie and television industries who are grappling with Netflix... but possibly much, much worse.

This insight came from a conversation I had with Art Rhyno. He told me that his son, who is taking engineering at the University of Windsor, already has developed a habit of going to Springer eBooks for his research needs and has gotten quite comfortable with using its features. Art then raised the point that it might be difficult for get our users to start using the Scholars Portal ebook platform once the Springer ebook content is migrated there, if these users have already created a 'bookshelf' and saved annotations in the previous platform. (Scholars Portal only added user profiles to their ebooks platform just this week).

I'm far from the first to cotton to the idea that its annotations that might prove to become more important to readers than where their ebooks come from. The best thinking that I have read about the idea is from James Bridle's Walter Benjamin’s Aura: Open Bookmarks and the future eBook. Of note, the subtitle of the work is "The form of the book, and its aura".

But even traditional pen and ink annotations play an important role in literary scholarship even if the annotation is only a check mark and a squiggle.

When (Laurie) Anderson told a friend about the project, he showed her a Bible that Melville purchased just before he began writing his literary masterpiece. Many of Melville's original pencil notes had been erased by his wife, with whom he'd had a less-than-perfect relationship. After an unsuccessful attempt to have the erased passages reconstructed, Anderson pored over the pages herself with a magnifying glass, hoping to find the inspiration behind Melville's tale.

In Isaiah 27:1, she found what she'd been searching for: "In that day the Lord with his sore and great and strong sword shall punish leviathan the piercing serpent, even leviathan that crooked serpent; and he shall slay the dragon that is in the sea." Next to the verse was a check mark and a long squiggle.

"I thought, 'That's it!'" Anderson recalls. "The whale is his snake and the ocean is his garden, the place where he works out good and evil."

When our conversation at the OLITA Council meeting turned to annotation and ebooks, Nick Ruest, keeper of the Digital Collections of McMaster University, told us that it was the annotations of the scanned material that particularly interested scholars and students.

It's worth noting that, at the moment, publishers either don't understand the value of the ability to annotate and share annotations, or they see it as too costly a value-add for too few people. Footnotes are disappearing while references are published separately from the work itself.

Where do you keep your book annotations, references and citations? Is it separate from your library?

I keep mine in Zotero. In fact, Zotero is my library. My ebook reader is my browser. This blog is how I share my annotations.

For now.

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