Why Historians Shouldn’t Count on the Kindle: Digital Reading and Historical Scholarship

This is a follow up on a previous post on e-book readers and the future of reading for historical researchers.

Emerging digital reading technologies hold great potential to improve historical scholarship, but these developments should not be confused with developments in the consumer electronics industry. New electronic reading devices, including Amazon’s Kindle and Barnes & Noble’s Nook, are primarily directed toward a consumer market to drive sales of mostly works of fiction from commercial publishers. These particular devices are tied specifically to the retail interests of Amazon and Barnes & Noble. By design, they are not, as yet, well-suited for academic purposes.

This is not to say that academic historians cannot benefit from digital reading. In fact, historians already do a lot of digital reading through e-mail, websites, blogs, electronic journal articles, and e-books. Digital reading will likely occupy a greater part of historical scholarship in the future, but electronic reading devices like the Kindle and Nook do not currently serve the historian well.

Historians cut, copy, paste, and share the things they read. Books purchased through the Kindle and Nook do not support this behaviour very well. Tech-savvy readers will already know many of the issues surrounding the Kindle and Digital Rights Management (DRM) (and the now infamous 1984 incident). Both the Kindle and the Nook offer convenient 3G wireless access (courtesy of AT&T) to very inconvenient books. Amazon offers books in its own proprietary e-book format (AZW) with all the convenience of being locked to your device, courtesy of DRM. This means no sharing, no format shifting, no modifications, and absolutely no copying. E-books from Barnes & Noble offer similar DRM limitations. While the Nook has a sharing feature, this is limited to fourteen days and can only be done once. This is also dependent upon the publisher granting permission for this feature (similar to text-to-speech functionality on the Kindle). You cannot even print a single page from a Barnes & noble e-book. It is little wonder then why so many textbook publishers (excluding a few notable open access textbook publishers) are looking at the Kindle as a very attractive new content delivery system. The magic of DRM essentially eliminates the used textbook market, restricts copying, and accelerates the publication of new editions of textbooks. Getting free Kindles into the hands of undergraduate students serves this emerging electronic textbook industry very well, but does it meet the needs of students, educators, and researchers?

All of the DRM-based limitations of e-books purchased through online retailers like Amazon and Barnes & Noble seem moot for academic historians in light of the extremely limited catalog of academic texts available as e-books. As an environmental historian, I am interested in purchasing copies of books by leading scholars, such as William Cronon, Donald Worster, and J.R. McNeill. If I used a Kindle, I could only purchase copies of Cronon’s Nature’s Metropolis, Worster’s biography of John Muir A Passion for Nature, and McNeill’s Something New Under the Sun. I would not find Changes in the Land, Dust Bowl, Nature’s Economy, or The Mountains of the Mediterranean World. If I looked in the Barnes & Noble E-book store, I would find nothing. Ironically, I cannot even purchase an e-book version of Dan Cohen and Roy Rosenzweig’s Digital History: A Guide to Gathering, Preserving, and Presenting the Past on the Web (fortunately, the full text of this book is available as a free website). The problem of the limited selection of scholarly e-books obviously lies on the shoulders of publishers, but one would hope that when more university presses commit to electronic publishing, they will do so in an open manner similar to Athabasca University Press.

It would seem then, from the perspective of historians, that the 3G connectivity of the Kindle and Nook holds little value. It only offer access to a limited collection of e-books with an abundance of user limitations.

Unlike the slow growth in the electronic publication of academic monographs, scholarly journals in the humanities are quickly moving online, primarily in the form of PDF articles available through familiar systems like JSTOR, ProQuest, and EBSCOhost. Leaving aside the restrictions inherent in these systems, historians now read a lot of their journal articles as open PDF files, a style of short-form reading well-suited to digital readers. Historians seem most in need of electronic reading devices that are equipped to read a versatile set of open file formats with simple, file transfer systems.

So where do the current e-readers stand on using open formats and simple file transfer systems? The Kindle offers the most cumbersome version of PDF file transfer and reading (unless you use the Kindle DX) while the Nook seems to offer direct file transfer through USB and MicroSD and compatibility with open PDF and other e-book and text formats. The Sony Reader offers extensive compatibility with many open formats, including ePub, BBeB Book, PDF, TXT, RTF, and Microsoft Word as well as direct file transfer capabilities through USB or memory card. If you use an iPhone or iPod Touch, I would recommend downloading the Stanza and Good Reader applications. Both support a variety of open file formats (although the wi-fi file transfer systems are a bit clumsy to configure and do not work very well outside of a home network). Good Reader is particularly well-suited for reading PDF journal articles and its text recognition function allows the reader to manipulate font size without losing pagination (handy for maintaining proper citations). And, of course, you cannot beat the versatility of the most popular digital reading device, the PC or Mac.

The development of new electronic reading devices, however, seems to be a minor issue when it comes to fostering digital reading among historians. More university presses need to digitize their publications and shift the delivery of e-books away from the Amazon and Barnes & Noble DRM models. Scholarly journals need to offer a wider range of distribution options, including RSS subscriptions and multiple open formats. Furthermore, the development of e-reader software user interfaces seems to be more important than the plastic and metal cases that hold this software. Page-turning, bookmarking, text and font modifications, web-integration, and file compatibility are software-based problems that still need to be overcome. These seem to be more crucial problems for digital historians than the emerging hardware wars in the consumer electronics industry.

Digital reading holds many advantages for historians and the future of historical scholarship. If we want to expand the use of e-books, e-journals, and other forms of electronic scholarly writing, we must not allow digital scholarly publishing to fall into the limited and ultimately commercially-based boxes of the Kindle and Nook.


9 Responses

  1. A colleague recently bought a Kindle-format version of a scholarly book because it would be delivered faster to her mobile device (than ordering it online or going to the bookstore). She was sorely disappointed to find that the Kindle reader on the iPhone had no useful mechanism for a scholar’s classic reading strategy: reading the main text, flipping to investigate a footnote, then going back to where you were. A critical flaw for historians.

    • Very good point. I didn’t really get into the different types of user interfaces and the trouble of managing footnotes in e-books and e-journals. This is a big hurdle for digital reading in academia.

      I would say, however, that Good Reader does a very good job managing footnotes, especially in PDF journal articles. I find this to be the best format for scholarly digital reading (so far).

      What e-reader manages endnotes for monographs in a satisfactory manner? I’m not too sure. I haven’t seen one yet. Stanza hasn’t really solved this problem. Does anyone else have a recommendation?

      Thanks for the feedback.

  2. You make some good points about the limits of proprietary e-book readers, but I think you’re putting the blame (for lack of a better word) on the wrong shoulders in this case.

    The e-book is still fairly new and there are plenty of people working on the interfaces, spending tons of time and money to improve them. It stands to reason that Amazon and Barnes and Noble should be able to profit from the capital they have invested in this area.

    I think open-source software platforms such as Open Office provide a good analogy. For years, MS Word has been the cutting edge word processor in the industry. Now, those who want a free, open source program can turn to Open Office. It provides most of the same features, but will likely never be as cutting edge as MS Word, which is driven by competition to be the best. But, without the effort and ingenuity of the MS Word team, Open Office would never be as advanced as it currently is.

    I believe the same will prove true for ebook readers. Ultimately there will be an open format that will be almost as good as the Kindle (or next great reader), but free market enterprise will always push the envelope.

    What I think you’ve pointed out brilliantly is that the problem for academia in this case is apathy. You mention you can’t find the academic books you want on the e-book readers, and I say, blame the authors.

    It probably hasn’t occurred to most of them that their book could even be purchasable on a Kindle or that someone would want to download the whole thing as a PDF. And this is where I think more academics could benefit by thinking beyond the book deal and into the realm of knowledge mobilization.

    The academic model rewards those who publish, not necessarily those who widely disseminate their ideas. Ensuring your work is available in a range of formats is time consuming and won’t necessarily improve your tenure file or your bank balance, but it’s crucial to keeping academia relevant.

    For each academic who asks their publisher to make sure their book is available on Kindle, or the Nook, or as a PDF on lulu.com, the entire academic world benefits.

    Shame is a great motivator, and in this case I’d say if you aren’t part of the solution, you’re part of the problem. So next time you are at a conference and meet someone whose book you want to read, ask them if you can find it on your E-Book reader. It’s probably the first time they’ve been asked that question and it might get them to think.

    That reminds me, Sean I hear you have a book coming out in the next year or two. Will I be able to read it on my e-book reader? 🙂

    • Thanks for your thoughtful response to my post. It’s great to get some feedback and start a conversation. I have to disagree with you on a couple of points.

      First of all, I am not convinced that “free market enterprise will always push the envelope” when it comes to electronic publishing and reading. In fact, the DRM-based approach to the e-book industry, pursued by Amazon, Barnes & Noble, and their partner publishers, demonstrates precisely how a “free market” approach to the development of this industry is leading toward an anti-competitive model that limits consumer choice, innovation, and readership. By locking e-book content to specific devices through increasingly elaborate DRM restrictions (protected under US law through the Digital Millennium Copyright Act) and especially through the proprietary Kindle e-book format, these companies are attempting to monopolize the emerging e-book market (similar to Apple’s early approach to the iTunes Music Store). We do not need to develop monopolistic proprietary e-book formats. There are plenty of open e-book formats, including PDF (since 2008) and epub. Thus far, profit-driven “free market” innovation has given us only the restrictive and nearly useless e-book format of AZW.

      Furthermore there is nothing “free market” about the Kindle or Nook as e-reader platforms. To take your example of the development of Microsoft Word and Open Office, neither of these software products would ever have been developed had the PC not been an open platform for software development (see Jonathan Zittrain’s book The Future of the Internet and How to Stop It, available as a free e-book at http://futureoftheinternet.org/download).

      Amazon and Barnes & Noble and their commercial publisher partners are private corporations and therefore have a responsibility to their shareholders to maximize profitability. This, however, is not the concern of academics and is questionably the concern of university presses. Academics (especially those whose research is publicly funded) have no duty or responsibility to uphold and participate in a publishing model that secures the profitability of a private corporation. Locking e-books into this kind of publishing model does not even necessarily offer academic authors a wider readership. DRM restricts use and deliberately restricts and discourages user dissemination. This does not help an author reach a wider audience and contradicts the interests of knowledge mobilization (in my opinion).

      Second, I’m not sure we can just “blame the authors”. Remember, authors of scholarly books do not always get to call the shots. A lot of these decisions rest in the hands of publishers. I do, however, agree that more authors should push their publishers to consider electronic publication and they should also (to the best of their ability) seek out publishers that support open electronic publishing. There are obviously numerous obstacles to achieving this goal and junior scholars, unfortunately, have limited professional power to affect this kind of change. Often it takes the leadership of senior scholars to modify the direction of scholarly publishing. I would point to Sarah Carter’s decision to co-publish her most recent book under a Creative Commons license as both an e-book and print book with University of Athabasca Press and University of Alberta Press as an example (http://www.aupress.ca/index.php/books/120144). Of course, this is a luxury that comes with having tenure and a well-established research and publication record.

      All this talk of Kindles and Nooks, of course, is irrelevant for us Canadians since neither product is currently available in this country. However, I wouldn’t be surprised if Chapters-Indigo (our national quasi-monopoly book retailer) has plans to release its own e-book reader with wireless connectivity through partnership with one of our (quasi-monopoly) telecoms (Rogers, Telus, Bell). This, I suspect, is why the new international Kindle is not available in Canada.

      To answer your final question, stay tuned.

      Thanks again for your comments, Adam.

  3. I have more of a practical response. I think Sean’s points about restrictive technologies are bang on. As a scholar, I would not want to be restricted to purchasing books in an electronic format specific to the retailer. That being said, I do have Sony Ebook Reader (PRS 700). It is marginally useful, and you are not at all restricted to a specific Sony book format. It will download books in a variety of formats, including epub and PDF, which gives you free access to the vast amount of public domain stuff on sites such as Manybooks, Project Gutenburg, and Google Books. This is tremendously useful if you feel like reading some of John Muir’s (to take just one example) stuff for the class you are teaching the next day. For those whose work involves a lot of delving into older published books (and that’s probably a lot of us), the ebook reader saves a lot of hassles with carting tons of books from the library. For parents, it has a built in light, so you can read while your kid falls asleep. The Sony Ebook store has a not bad selection of environmental history texts, though it is not extensive either. I bought the reader with leftover, about to expire money in a grant. If you have similar cash, I can recommend it. For the cost-benefits of buying it yourself, I can’t really give a strong recommendation unless you are higher up the pay scale than I am.

    • Thanks for posting your practical experiences with the Sony Reader. My brother is a law student and he uses one as well for reading PDF articles for class.

      I would just echo your sentiments about the utility of accessing public domain works in epub or PDF formats. There is a lot of useful digital content out there for historians. Many of these public domain books, available through projects like Google Books and others have digitized really valuable historical documents that do not necessarily appeal to the commercial market. I would also encourage readers to check out the work of the New York Public Library and their digital collections (http://www.nypl.org/digital/). Again, this is another great resource for digitized public domain works.

  4. This is an interesting thread and I’ve read it in the light of Kate Pullinger’s endorsement of the Kindle at the GG’s the other night. I am open to digital reading devices — and why wouldn’t I? As this thread makes clear so much of our reading is already ‘digital.’ I would certainly like a device that makes reading (and scholarly forms of it) easier. But the Kindle and other commercial devices also suggest an enclosure of books and reading that the 1984 incident alluded to above exemplifies. It reminds me of terminator seeds where reproduction (of plants, of knowledge) is restricted. The image I have in my mind at this moment is from the final scene of Truffuat’s Fahrenheit 451 and the readers wandering through the woods reading their illicit books. Am I being paranoid?

    On a more positive note, I wanted to alert you to a marvelous source of old books for environmental historians. The Biodiversity Heritage Library is a digitized collection of more than 35,000 titles in natural history and science. The books are available as PDFs and are scans, including the worn covers, so it preserves to some degree the tactile quality of books that I cannot live without. I’ve downloaded texts by Erasmus and Charles Darwin, Cuvier, Humboldt, and others — but I hate reading them on my laptop.

    Here’s the link, and thanks Sean for starting a great post!

    • Will, I really liked your comments about Fahrenheit 451. I can see how you might think that this is a paranoid or exaggerated perspective, but if you do download a DRM-protected e-book and you decide to break the DRM locks, you may have to covertly read it in the woods.

      I’m glad to see this conversation continue, especially in light on the news that the Kindle will be coming to Canada. I hope that university educators and researchers in Canada are proactive about avoiding the pitfalls of distributing scholarly works in the “walled garden” of the Kindle.

      Reuters story on Kindle coming to Canada:

  5. […] just been caught up in the media spectacle that is an Apple product launch, but since I wrote a post back in November about the use of e-book readers for historical scholarship I thought I should say […]

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