E-books now better than ever: Easy access, clean interface, off-line reading (Part 1)

Back in April, Mary Jackson wrote about significant improvements coming to many of the library’s e-books as a result of EBSCO Publishing’s acquisition of NetLibrary from OCLC in early 2010. These improvements have arrived, and I think they were worth the wait.

Introducing EBSCOhost eBook Collection

The P.H. Welshimer Memorial Library has a substantial collection of over 68,000 e-book titles that migrated from NetLibrary into what is now called EBSCOhost eBook Collection. (The library has e-books from other publishers and vendors–Mary noted we have over 73,000 titles in total. But this is by far our largest collection.) Library users familiar with our EBSCOhost databases (e.g., ATLAS, CINAHL, Education Research Complete, Humanities International Complete, PsycINFO, SocINDEX, etc.) will instantly feel at home navigating this e-book collection, because it actually is another EBSCOhost database. The only difference (though no small difference) is that it searches and displays book content instead of journal article content.

It has been our observation that students tend to prefer using journal articles in research because the search tools connected with accessing articles–especially full-text articles–make this easier, more convenient, and more productive. I believe applying this same capability to books will encourage greater use of this information resource format in student research. (As an aside, students need to appreciate that books and articles are different information ‘animals.’ They serve different functions. It isn’t simply that books are long and articles are short. Rather, books lend themselves to broad and developed treatment of topics, whereas articles tend to be very narrowly focused on a particular aspect of a topic. Because of their format and mandate, articles often do not have the luxury of providing the reader with extensive background or context. Consequently, over-reliance on journal articles can actually hamper a student’s ability to properly understand the development of a topic, its history, or the range of issues at play.)

The “problem” with books isn’t that they’re in print–in fact, students appear to still appreciate and in many cases prefer the printed book format. The “problem” is that print books are not easily searchable (though tables of contents and indexes intend to help). The search tool most strongly associated with finding books is the library catalog. But the catalog doesn’t search the content of a book. The catalog only searches records that point to their associated books (or media). A book record typically includes such things as title, author(s)/editor(s), publication information, subject headings (a controlled system of describing what the book is about), and maybe a table of contents. But not the content itself. This is an inherent limitation of a library catalog (which originated to efficiently organize descriptions of physical, print books). It’s not the catalog’s fault, of course. And for what it is designed to do, a library catalog is still a pretty nifty and powerful tool.

When we enter the digital realm of electronic books where space isn’t an issue–where a catalog record, as it were, can contain not just a “shorthand” description of the book’s contents but literally the entire text of the book–it suddenly becomes possible for a book to be entirely searchable, eliminating the “problem” described above. This is the really powerful capability provided by having our e-books on a platform like EBSCOhost eBook Collection.

In Part 2, I will take you on a quick tour of our EBSCOhost eBook Collection to demonstrate searching, e-book display and navigation, expanded printing, and a new capability for off-line (including to some mobile device) reading.

Introducing MCSearch: One search box–for the good stuff

The P.H. Welshimer Memorial Library is pleased to introduce MCSearch to the Milligan College community. What is MCSearch? We think our tagline says it all: “One search box–for the good stuff.”

One search box. Students are familiar with Google and other popular web search engines. They like the ease and convenience of being able to type a few keywords into a search box and get tons of results. But how relevant, reliable, or current is this information for academic research purposes? This is a serious question. Students need to acquire skills for evaluating information accessed from the open web. (The Library provides instruction to students in information literacy skills like information resource evaluation.) However, given a choice between digging hard for the best available information resources or the convenience of a Google search, students are often satisfied with “good enough.”

What if there was a tool available that provided the ease and convenience of a Google search, but the information resources searched and results returned were those provided by the Library? Students could get to the stuff that was truly good instead of just good enough. This is exactly what MCSearch does.

The good stuff. Every year the Library spends tens of thousands of dollars to provide Milligan College students and faculty with high quality information resources to support their coursework and research. Books, media, print and electronic journals and magazines, e-books, subject-based print and electronic reference works (encyclopedias and dictionaries), and numerous subject-based and multidisciplinary databases for accessing journal articles online. We also provide an array of tools such as online library catalogs, journal finders, link resolvers, and database interfaces to help students and faculty search these resources. We make this investment because, frankly (and contrary to much conventional current day “wisdom”), you can’t get everything you need on the open web. Academic information resources are costly to produce, publish and distribute. Although there is a slowly growing open access movement in academic communication online, generally speaking, the good stuff isn’t free.

One search box, again. The “killer feature” that makes a search engine like Google so powerful and compelling is that a single query is applied simultaneously across a multitude of sites and resources on the World Wide Web. Can you imagine having to browse or search each site on the web individually to try to find information you were looking for? I’m showing my age here, but I first got online in 1994, almost 5 years before the Google search engine started attracting attention on the Web. I still remember when Yahoo! was literally just a running list of websites. But enough about that. My point is that search engines have profoundly altered the way we search for information. What if it were possible to apply some of this kind of power when searching the Library’s information resources–a single query applied simultaneously to the Library catalog and databases, rather than searching each of these sources individually? This is exactly what MCSearch does.

The emphasis is on discovery. As the Library evaluated the various print and electronic information resources it provides to students and faculty, it occurred to us that in many ways we have enough stuff. What we felt we needed was a way to make the stuff we have more discoverable. MCSearch is not about “dumbing down” the research process, or pandering to the bad study habits of lazy students. Using a search engine effectively still requires skill and discernment. But because MCSearch applies a search query across a range of Library resources and formats at once, it can bring to the surface information a student may not have otherwise discovered through conventional means. This brings a delightful element of serendipity to the research process.

Filter on the way out. Because general or broad keyword searches tend to return too many results that are not necessarily relevant, conventional catalog and database searching with limited features encourages the user to formulate precise search queries in advance to get the best results. MCSearch also allows the user to apply limiters to search queries in advance to narrow search results. However, a particularly powerful capability of MCSearch is the ability to filter results after the search is completed. MCSearch includes the ability to easily refine or “facet” results by various criteria (date, format, subject, provider, etc.). This capability removes the “problem” of too many results, while still providing the opportunity to discover valuable resources from unexpected sources.

Try it out now! We will be providing more usage assistance in subsequent posts and instruction sessions. But right now I would like to encourage you to just take some time to play around with MCSearch and get familiar with its capabilities. Feel free to contact us with any questions, and we especially welcome your feedback.

Plato, the invention of writing, and the e-book

This post originally appeared on my now inactive blog, Voyage of the Paradigm Ship, January 19, 2009.

The following is a two-part email I sent to my good friend and colleague (he is chair of the faculty Library Committee) on March 27 and 29, 2006, after he sent me an editorial written by Edward Tenner in The New York Times, entitled “Searching for Dummies” (March 26, 2006). My friend is a history professor and an avid bibliophile. Though he has largely “come around” to my way of thinking regarding the benefits of electronic delivery of journal literature, he is far more resistive when it comes to surrendering the marvelous technology expressed as the printed book. He knows he has been socialized into this preference, but insists that a full embrace of computer and electronic information resource technology is damaging his students’ capacity to think through complex ideas in a sustained and deep way. I retort that our task should not be rejection of the technology but the instruction into its proper use, and building an awareness (understanding) both of its advantages/limitations and its impact (both good and ill) on human culture and knowledge. In my argument I drew an analogy from another ancient technology—writing itself.

Greetings. Further to our on-going conversation (print vs. electronic information resources), here is an interesting excerpt from Plato’s Phaedrus, where Socrates tells a story of the Egyptian god Theuth, the inventor of, among other things, writing. I have not read the full piece, but it is interesting here to see Plato’s critique of the losses sustained by writing (and reading) as a new technology over oral culture and true memory.

At the Egyptian city of Naucratis, there was a famous old god, whose name was Theuth; the bird which is called the Ibis is sacred to him, and he was the inventor of many arts, such as arithmetic and calculation and geometry and astronomy and draughts and dice, but his great discovery was the use of letters [grammata=writing]. Now in those days the god Thamus was the king of the whole country of Egypt; and he dwelt in that great city of Upper Egypt which the Hellenes call Egyptian Thebes, and the god himself is called by them Ammon. Theuth came to him and showed his inventions [technas, “arts”], desiring that the other Egyptians might be allowed to have the benefit of them. Thamus enquired about their several uses, and as Theuth enumerated them, Thamus praised some of them and censured others, as he approved or disapproved of them. It would take a long time to repeat all that Thamus said to Theuth in praise or blame of the various arts [technai]. But when they came to letters [grammata], Theuth said, “This invention, O King, will make the Egyptians wiser and give them better memories; I have discovered a remedy [pharmakon: potion, medicine, drug] both for the memory and for wisdom.” Thamus replied: “O most ingenious [technikotate] Theuth, the parent or inventor of an art is not always the best judge of the utility or inutility of his own inventions to the users of them. And in this instance, you who are the father of letters, from a paternal love of your own children have been led to attribute to them a power opposite to that which they in fact possess. For this discovery of yours will create forgetfulness in the minds of those who learn to use it; they will not exercise their memories, but, trusting in external, foreign marks [graphes], they will not bring things to remembrance from within themselves. You have discovered a remedy [pharmakon] not for memory, but for reminding. You offer your students the appearance of wisdom, not true wisdom. They will be hearers of many things and will have learned nothing; they will appear to be omniscient and will generally know nothing; they will be tiresome company, having the show of wisdom without the reality.”

This is all very ironic in view of our conversation. We long ago adopted the writing technology of Theuth. We frankly no longer know what we lost through its adoption, since we have lived under its ideological assumptions for so long. Neil Postman, in his book Technolopy: The Surrender of Culture to Technology (Vintage, 1992) alludes to this story in rightly claiming the non-neutral and ideological function of every technology and technological adoption.

I have contended in our conversation that print books are every bit as much a technological invention of information transmission, and laden with ideology, as any book in electronic format. Postman urges caution, in deference to your concerns. I am not insensitive to these, of course. I am no heedless technophile any more than you are a heedless technophobe. My real point is offered by Postman where he writes: “[Thamus] would allow, I imagine, that a technology may be barred entry to a culture…But…once a technology is admitted, it plays out its hand; it does what it is designed to do. Our task is to understand what that design is—that is to say, when we admit a new technology to the culture, we must do so with our eyes wide open.” (p. 7, emphasis added)

For good or ill, electronic information technology has been admitted into our culture. Since this technology has become proliferated into every facet of our students’ lives, it no longer makes sense to bar it here at Milligan College Library as some well-meaning bulwark against the flood. That is the surest recipe for irrelevance. Yes, we can and should keep the books around and in plain sight as an act of ideological subversion. But I believe our mandate now is to fight, not by insisting that our students use the books, but by building understanding instead of heedlessness. This is the instructional role of a comprehensive program of information literacy. Data is not information; information is not knowledge; and knowledge is not yet wisdom. Wisdom comes through passionate, responsible (ethical), critical (discerning) and mature use of information, and the organization of information that forms into structures of knowledge. This, it seems to me, has always been our task. Only now we can’t take anything for granted.

* * *

Plato, by having Socrates tell this story, is engaging in a form of rhetoric. Everything here is inescapably in written form! But for Plato this is also a concession and (what we are calling “ironic” in our current conversation) really a paradox. Plato writes to critique writing! But not all writing, as not all speech, is of equal value. For Plato, writing that preserves the living dialogical (mind-to-mind conversational) nature of true human (philosophical) knowledge, and which asks more questions than it answers, is the best. Incidentally, much of Plato’s writing is construed as dialogue between great philosophical minds. But he would say that even his writing is a concession, if only because of the inherent limitations of written communication. [See Robin Waterfield’s excellent commentary on this in the section of his Introduction to Plato’s Phaedrus (Oxford World’s Classics, 2002) entitled, “Dialectic and the Weakness of Writing,” pages xxxvii-xlii.]

My original allusion to this story, and giving it out as ironic, is a technical (pun intended!) misuse of Plato’s intention. But my warrant for it (as also picked-up by Neil Postman) is that Theuth is said to have invented writing. As such, writing is unmistakably recognized as a technology. As a tool, technology requires instruction for its proper use, and (because it is not value neutral) requires an awareness (understanding) of its advantages/limitations and its impact (both good and ill) on human culture and knowledge.

I think this is really the point of Plato’s critique. I imagine Plato would prefer not to use writing in human discourse because of its inherent limitations. But paradoxically, he has no choice to use writing if he wants his ideas disseminated and preserved (for reminding, not for true memory, as Thamus notes!). So, given the inherent limitations of writing, he must instruct his readers (in the guise of the highly-esteemed Socrates) into an awareness through critique of how this technology functions, and what is the most profitable writing form—the form that best preserves dialogical nature of human knowledge.

By analogy, you (and I) have come to view the writing of and reading from printed books as the best form for preserving and engaging the accumulated ideas of human knowledge. (You may quibble on my wording, but the basic gist is there, right?) We honestly believe and assume that a living conversation is still preserved within those pages for fresh engagement. We are no longer troubled by Plato’s concerns because we have come to view the book as a most acceptable means of disseminating and preserving ideas. To us, it is no longer a mere concession. Rather, it has been (for the last several thousands of years) the primary technology for this very purpose. Praise be to Theuth for his miraculous invention!

But now, after a very lengthy and productive stint with the printed form of the book, along comes a new technology that proposes a new form—an electronic/digital form. [I’m still in analogy mode here.] How do we react to this? Well, we may sense that this new technology will, to quote Thamus, “create forgetfulness in the minds of those who learn to use it; they will not exercise their memories, but, trusting in external, foreign [virtual!] marks, they will not bring things to remembrance from within themselves.” We offer appropriate critique. To use this new technology implies a concession (but not the same level of paradox, since it still involves the use of writing [with multimedia capabilities thrown-in]). The preferred use or non-use of this technology does not (yet?) place a person in a “I have no choice” position as it did for Plato. But the use of this technology does involve certain advantages and certain limitations. And so, the use of this technology requires instruction for its proper use, and (because it is not value neutral) requires an awareness (understanding) of its advantages/limitations and its impact (both good and ill) on human culture and knowledge.

So, I would argue that Plato makes my case—though not because he is forced (paradoxically/ironically) to use writing even while critiquing it. The analogy is not in equating the move from printed book to digital book with Plato’s paradoxical move from using a pure form of human knowledge transmission (oral communication) and preservation (memory) to a compromised form through writing and (mere) reminding. The analogy, rather, is that given the invention of the electronic/digital form of the book and its inevitable/increasing use, we now need to instruct in its proper use and build an awareness of its advantages/limitations and its cultural impact. Thamus critiqued writing at its invention (in the ancient time of the myth). Plato critiques it (as it were) after long use. Thamus could warn the god of the dire unintended consequences of its use. Plato can allude to those warnings in order to offer contemporary instruction, even as he himself uses the technology!

I would say Plato was doing a form of information literacy. And so the New York Times Op-Ed piece [Edward Tenner, “Searching for Dummies,” March 26, 2006]. Information literacy is a “fighting back” strategy to the (dire?) unintended consequences of the miraculous invention called the Internet … and information resource access via electronic databases. Information literacy is instruction in the proper use and awareness-building of this new technology. What do you think?

“When you’re used to paper rolls it takes some time to convert to turning pages of a book.”

“Medieval Helpdesk” sketch from the Øystein og jeg show from the Norwegian Broadcasting Corporation (NRK), 2007.

I originally published this post on my now mothballed blog, Voyage of the Paradigm Ship on February 22, 2009. Even two years later, I think it is a relevant commentary as we observe the technological developments of the book form on various electronic platforms.

In this video we see the medieval equivalent of the IT guy making a house call (in true Geek Squad fashion) to help walk a frustrated user through a new piece of technology. The situation is familiar to most people (especially those of us over a certain age), though the time-shift takes us off guard. That’s what makes the sketch so hilarious. Familiarity in an unfamiliar context. As a non-Norwegian-speaking person, I find this “familiarity in the midst of unfamiliarity” dynamic enhanced even further.

I imagine that many people watching this video will, in fact, identify with the described situation while thinking of an analogous modern situation, such as learning to use a computer, a new piece of software, or the latest consumer electronics gadget. But as a librarian, I am interested in the described situation itself. Although the historical time-frame is off slightly, the sketch allows me to imagine the cultural, intellectual, and (even) emotional processing that accompanied the technological transition in the form of the book from roll/scroll to codex.

With the benefit of this perspective, I can extrapolate some of the processing required as we are once again approaching a credible point of transition in book form from paper to electronic (i.e., the so-called e-book). I am not interested in speculating about the imminent demise of the ink on paper book, which I do not see. Rather, and at the risk of over-analyzing a two-and-a-half minute bit of humor, I am interested in thinking about human interaction with and reactions to technology at points of significant technological transition, such as the maturing of the e-book format, which I do think is now well underway.

The “familiarity in the midst of unfamiliarity” dynamic of the sketch allows us the space to see, by analogy, that the form of the book we all take for granted was itself a technological innovation that encountered significant resistance to adoption in the presence of an existing and presumably satisfactory alternative—the book roll. Vocal detractors to the codex as an appropriate form for literary texts were well known in first and second century Roman society.

Brother Ansgar says, “When you’re used to paper rolls it takes some time to convert to turn[ing] pages of a [book].” Familiarity to the point of taking a technology for granted is a key point exposed in the sketch and shouldn’t be missed. Adoption of any technology by a society and individuals within that society becomes complete when that technology effectively disappears as a technology—it becomes ubiquitous. That is why technological developments that disturb ubiquity are frequently met with resistance. After fifteen hundred plus years it’s easy to forget that the printed book as we have it today is still a technology, an invented thing that hasn’t always been.

Notice how this ubiquity is reflected in modern language usage. Here is a definition for the word “codex” from the New Oxford American Dictionary, 2nd Edition (2005):

Notice the phrases “in book form” and “hence a book.” The definition is offered from the standpoint of “everyone knows (is familiar with) what a book is, and a codex is like a book in its form.” This definition is not untrue. But this usage reinforces identification with what is ubiquitous, and inadvertently contributes to resistance to change. How can an e-book be a real book? I imagine that a literate person in second century Rome would vigorously reject this dictionary definition. He or she would say that while a codex might be fine for keeping a grocery list, or for children to use to practice their alphabet, it is definitely not a book! “Would you read Virgil’s Aeneid on a grocery list?!” How far off is this, really, from someone today saying, “Would you read Virgil’s Aeneid off a computer screen?!”?

I have gone to persistent pains in this post to talk about the roll/scroll, codex, printed book, and e-book as book forms. I will even throw-in a text inscribed on a clay tablet as an authentic book form. Literate Akkadians or Babylonians certainly thought so as they read the Epic of Gilgamesh! I disagree, however, with the notion that a book is only about content. It does seem significant that a book needs to have a form—needs to be in some sense a discrete object that exists as a container for its associated content. But why can’t that discrete object be a digital file accessible in virtual space at the click of a mouse, or the touch of a screen?

I know there are a raft of conscious and unconscious, social and conventional, personal and emotional associations that build-up over time to authorize a book form as ‘real’ and authentic (e.g., the dictionary definition above). But these associations are learned, as the use of any technology is learned. From the safe distance of several centuries we can laugh at Brother Ansgar for his technological difficulty with something that, to us, is so obvious. But if we laugh we’re really only laughing at ourselves. If a codex can become a ‘real’ book even if at one time it was not deemed to be so, then by analogy an e-book should be able to acquire a similar authorization. It’s just a question of time.

While writing this post I stumbled across an article by John Siracusa on Ars Technica entitled, “The once and future e-book: on reading in the digital age.” Siracusa was involved with efforts in the 1990s to get e-books adopted into the publishing and reading mainstream. Although I disagree with his contention that the book is format agnostic, and only about content, his article is otherwise very illuminating and well-worth a read. I may interact with Siracusa’s article further in a subsequent post because he addresses some of the common technological issues that have hampered the pace of wide-spread e-book adoption (like the Medieval Helpdesk producing their user manual for the codex in codex form! “Oh. We hadn’t thought about that.”).

Coming attractions: Ebook improvements!

Everyone who works in the Milligan College Library has had the following experience. A student asks for help finding a book, we go over with them to the catalog to search their subject. When scanning the results list, the student finds an item they like. We mention that it is an electronic book. The student sighs and asks if we have a “real” version of the book. By “real” they mean, “Do we have the book in print?” We sigh and try to explain the strong points of an electronic book. But we know in our hearts why students are reluctant to use our collection of electronic books (which now exceeds 73,000 titles–approaching 50% of our entire book collection in all formats!). The interfaces are clunky, require too much clicking, and on-screen readability is poor.

Libraries have been purchasing electronic versions of books for over a decade. While many librarians were aware of user reluctance to use them, libraries continued to buy ebooks because of convenience and other advantages, including attractive pricing. And because libraries continued to purchase ebooks, vendors often felt little pressure to improve their products. NetLibrary, the largest source of ebooks in the Milligan Library collection, has done little to improve their interface in the past 10 years.

The original Kindle ereader from Amazon.com

In 2007 Amazon.com released the Kindle for $399, and the ereader/ebook world as we knew it began to change. This was not the first attempt at an ereader. I remember seeing some Sony products at a library conference over 10 years ago. But they were too expensive, had too few book choices, and were unwieldy. They never caught on. It seems Amazon did their homework and figured out what features people really wanted in an ereader, and the types of books people wanted to read. They had the ability to deliver on both by leveraging their well-developed online book distribution system and massive purchasing power to negotiate Kindle-compatible editions with publishers. Kindles have also continued to drop in price. Amazon just released an ad-supported Kindle for $114, a price that will likely fall to under $100 by Christmas. Amazon has also extended its reach by providing Kindle book reading software applications that work on various computer, smartphone, and tablet devices. I’m not necessarily promoting the Kindle. Its proprietary (closed) file format is especially problematic for use in a library context. But Amazon has probably been the most successful to date in raising the profile of ebooks to the general public by releasing a viable, easy to use, and relatively inexpensive reading device into its hugely popular online marketplace.

Now that an increasing number of library users have experienced the wonders of ereaders, they are even more frustrated by the limitations of ebooks available from academic libraries. They want user-friendly interfaces that work on their ereaders and other mobile devices (e.g., smartphones and tablet computers). In short, they want the “Kindle experience” when accessing ebooks from the library.

That experience may be getting closer to reality. About a year ago, NetLibrary was purchased by EBSCO. You may already be familiar with this company through the use of its popular library-provided EBSCOhost journal databases—ATLAS, CINAHL, Education Research Complete, Humanities International Complete, PsycINFO, and others. When Milligan librarians learned that NetLibrary was purchased by EBSCO we were hopeful that they would work to make the product more attractive for our users.

Last summer EBSCO began surveying all NetLibrary libraries asking for feedback on ways to improve the interface. Based on the questions EBSCO was asking, the library staff was cautiously optimistic that NetLibrary would finally be getting a much-needed makeover in the right way. We were not disappointed. A new NetLibrary interface will be rolled out over the summer utilizing the EBSCOhost database platform. We have seen previews and demos. While not absolutely perfect, the interface is much improved and easier to navigate. There is built-in note taking, dictionary look-up, citation creation and export, and enhanced printing.

Most exciting, we have learned that EBSCO is developing an app for iPhone/iPad and Android mobile devices that will, via a personal Adobe Digital Editions account, enable NetLibrary ebooks to be downloaded (essentially “checked out”) on to your device for a specified period of time! To accompany these changes, EBSCO is retiring the NetLibrary moniker, and is simply calling the service eBooks on EBSCOhost.

Watch this blog for further updates as this story continues to unfold!