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From Scroll to Screen and Back: Vendor Lock-In and eBooks 2011/09/04

Posted by nydawg in Best Practices, Digital Archives, Digital Humanities, Digital Preservation, Information Literacy, Information Technology (IT).
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I saw an interesting article in the NYTimes titled “From Scroll to Screen” which looks at the transition in print media over the last two thousand years.  While the author is specifically looking at the transition from books to eBooks, he declares, “The last time a change of this magnitude occurred was circa 1450, when Johannes Gutenberg invented movable type. But if you go back further there’s a more helpful precedent for what’s going on. Starting in the first century A.D., Western readers discarded the scroll in favor of the codex — the bound book as we know it today.”

Like many archivists and librarians, I am also highly interested in how this transition will work in the future.  Last year I read William Powers‘ excellent Hamlet’s Blackberry which led me to new ways of thinking about media and different formats used to carry data and information between different stakeholders across time and space. . . .

So this article in the NYTimes by book critic Lev Grossman caught my interest when discussing how one format replaces the previous:  “In the classical world, the scroll was the book format of choice and the state of the art in information technology. Essentially it was a long, rolled-up piece of paper or parchment. To read a scroll you gradually unrolled it, exposing a bit of the text at a time; when you were done you had to roll it back up the right way, not unlike that other obsolete medium, the VHS tape.”

He goes on to explain how those scrolls were items of prestige, probably because of the “scarcity” of scroll-creators.  “Scrolls were the prestige format, used for important works only: sacred texts, legal documents, history, literature. To compile a shopping list or do their algebra, citizens of the ancient world wrote on wax-covered wooden tablets using the pointy end of a stick called a stylus. Tablets were for disposable text — the stylus also had a flat end, which you used to squash and scrape the wax flat when you were done. At some point someone had the very clever idea of stringing a few tablets together in a bundle. Eventually the bundled tablets were replaced with leaves of parchment and thus, probably, was born the codex. But nobody realized what a good idea it was until a very interesting group of people with some very radical ideas adopted it for their own purposes. Nowadays those people are known as Christians, and they used the codex as a way of distributing the Bible.”

And anyone who has ever tried to compare two or more passages in a book  on an ereader, you may be interested to read: “The codex also came with a fringe benefit: It created a very different reading experience. With a codex, for the first time, you could jump to any point in a text instantly, nonlinearly.”   This doesn’t quite work as easily in the tablet or eReader age, but stay tuned, as I imagine at some point they will improve on the technology.   “If the fable of the scroll and codex has a moral, this is it. We usually associate digital technology with nonlinearity, the forking paths that Web surfers beat through the Internet’s underbrush as they click from link to link. But e-books and nonlinearity don’t turn out to be very compatible.

So as we move from the tried and trusted durable medium of the codex and hard-cover book (even if printed on cheap paper) to the electronic tablet (early versions, soon-to-be-obsolete operating systems, playing outdated versions), our content management expertise and digital asset curator skills should become more valuable as new technologies eveolve and media formats become obsolete and disposable and our culture is at-risk.

But our hands are tied.   Even to address the pressing concerns of eBooks and eReaders and tablets, archivists are left out in the cold.  We dare not say anything about the vendor lock-in regarding Kindle’s proprietary formats, because they are Amazon’s Intellectual Property.  We cannot say anything about vendor lock-out in regards to Apple’s iPad tablet not playing (hot) Flash videos (see Steve Jobs “Thoughts on Flash”), and causing problems when accessing Fedora through its Flash application.  We cannot even mention the fact that iPads do not have any support for portable SD card and USB 2.0 external drives.  In other words, if you want to get information on (or off) your iPad, you probably have to email or upload it. . .  😦

So what can we do?  Or, more clearly, what should a digital archivist know to catalog and describe when working with born-digital materials?!  Well, of course there’s so much (not everything entirely relevant though!), but at the very least, better format (not just medium, but format, and maybe codec) descriptions can create better strategies leading to better plans, processes and best practices.  And keep your damn books!

I’ll admit that I finally broke down and bought an eReader.  Since I was going to be travelling to Chicago for the SAA, there were many articles I wanted to read and think about in advance, so for the last few months I was searching for the right one.  Of course, I was quite wary of Kindles because of the proprietary format and wasn’t sure how well it would read PDFS (or if it could), but friends suggested the Digital Reader or Sony eReader, and at least one friend suggested checking out the Nook from Barnes and Noble.

I wasn’t really sure what I wanted, and I ddn’t really care that much.  Basically, anything that would let me read PDFs, most of which I would download from the internet or specifically, the Society of American Archivists‘ (SAA), American Archivist journal.  Of course, I also found some excellent reads on Project Gutenberg and Internet Archive (where, btw, they’re preserving physical books!).  I’m really interested in the e-ink technology, so that was one factor, and the other factor was that I didn’t want to pay more than $130.  (Another factor, on which I thought I would have to compromise was that I wanted an eReader with two screens that would open like a book.)

Well, as you might expect, my research was not leading me to any answers, and I had almost decided to just go with one or the other (whichever was cheapest), and know it would be a temporary solution, until I can afford to buy a nice tablet computer . . . . .But then one day, I got an email offer from Woot for a one-day only clearance sale of all 2-screen dualbook (eReader & Tablet) from Entourage Pocket Edge!!  So I picked that up and I love it. . .. (Yes, there’s problems, but for reading pdfs and drawing on a journal or annotating pdfs and surfing the web on the tablet side, and etc. )   Maybe I’ll write more on it later, but for now, I hope you’ll just give a long thought about what we’ll lose if we give up functional non-linearity in our published works! (and I don’t mean Digital Humanities people with their datamining techniques..)

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