Last week I had a rather disturbing glimpse of the future when I had to go to the Bodleian to read a chapter in an e-book that the library didn’t have in printed form and which could only be read on one of the computers there. “Yes, this is something new”, the librarian explained to me, “Just like with a printed book these new e-books can only be read here and only by one person at a time”. So I went to the reading room, logged in, accessed the chapter I needed through the library catalogue and spent half an hour in the glare of the screen, trying to force myself to reach a level of concentration that would have come easily if I’d had an actual book in my hands.
Like most people working in academia I make a great deal of use of e-scholarship and am extremely grateful for its existence. Countless academic books and articles are now available online, at least if you are a member of a library with access to services like JSTOR. These resources save a lot of time and have a number of advantages over printed books and journals: you can follow up references without leaving your desk if you are working in an office or at home, you can do keyword searches to quickly see if an author has anything to say about a particular subject, you can quickly compile a bibliography on whatever it is you’re working on and you never have to worry that the book or article you need has been borrowed or has gone missing.
There are, however, also a number of disadvantages to scholarship in electronic form. Most importantly, studies have shown that I’m not alone in finding it harder to absorb on-screen text. Perhaps it’s to do with the fixed angle of the screen that forces you into a rigid upright posture, or the way the text is back-lit, or the way that you can’t hold the text in your hands and adjust the distance between your eyes and the printed word or the way that your progress through the text is no longer tangibly measured by how many pages you’re holding in each hand. Whatever the reason, reading on-screen seems to be much better for skimming and browsing than for thoroughly digesting a complex piece of prose. Wordpress lets me see statistics for how many people have ‘read’ my blog every day or week but it would probably be fairer to say that the numbers indicate how many people have skimmed through which, to be realistic, is probably what you are doing right now.
I have found that using my iPad as an e-reader compensates a bit for some of these problems and it has certainly helped reduce the ridiculous amount of waste I was producing by printing out articles, but even an e-reader is no substitute for a real book. And frustratingly, as I already mentioned, the only way to access the book I wanted was on one of the library’s own computers and through a rather cumbersome user interface that didn’t even reproduce the pages as they would have looked in the book. The book was about Roman art and for one thing the photos of the objects being discussed were irritatingly shown on separate pages from the text surrounded by unnecessary white areas when I know that they would have been integrated in the text in the hard copy.
The Bodleian reading rooms are an inspiring setting to work in as I’m sure anybody who’s been there knows and anybody who hasn’t can imagine. Surrounded by shelves stacked with weighty tomes and with distinguished university benefactors and scholars past looking down austerely from their portraits on the walls it’s hard not to feel that, in some small way at least, you are part of an unbroken chain of scholarship that reaches back into the Middle Ages. Yet sitting there struggling to get through the chapter of that e-book I couldn’t help wondering: is this the future of the academic library?
Surely that would be the worst of all possible worlds – all of the disadvantages of electronic scholarship with none of the advantages and all of the disadvantages of actually visiting the library with none of the advantages. I can see that placing restrictions on where these e-books can be read and by how many people at a time must be a way of saving money through the licensing arrangement that the library has with the publisher and e-books are of course, in any case, cheaper than proper books because there are no printing costs. Still, its a pretty depressing prospect that in a few years one of the key reasons for visiting a library as wonderful as the Bodleian might be to sit amid the books, staring at a screen skimming through articles, half absorbing the content and remembering that for a few short years this was something we were able to do from the comfort of our own armchairs, in the bus or on a park bench. Or worse, sitting there waiting to access an article that somebody else is struggling to read because of an artificial limitation that only lets one person see the file at a time.