E-books: New Experiences and Problems with Access

I first read an e-book a few years ago when I decided to see how War and Peace felt on my phone. Engrossing. And probably no less so than it is on paper. Now I like both paper books and e-books but the spread of e-books is about more than just enjoying them or not. The introduction of e-books (among other digital content) changed the interactions and responsibilities of publishers, authors, academics, librarians, government policy-makers, and of course readers (or users). These changes come with both social and technical issues and challenges, particularly in the vein of access.

E-books have been available at least since Project Gutenberg began digitizing them in the 1970s but devices that people widely accepted for reading them have only become popular comparatively recently, for example the Kindle e-reader became a best-selling product for Amazon in 2009. Of course, phones and tablets are also popular but device popularity hasn’t been the only challenge.

Experience and the Environment

For many people, the qualitative feel of the e-book and the experience of reading it remain an issue. A user attitudes study[1], found that people place importance on e-book “compatibility” with traditional reading habits, meaning that the reader can do things such as easily take notes, have a comfortable font size, etc. Some e-books are packaged in proprietary e-reader platforms with designs that overcomplicate the text[2]. Even if this deficiency is mostly a matter of user preference, different interface formats and systems change the book experience from platform to platform as well as from its analogue counterpart. The variance of these systems is an issue that can require institutions like libraries to offer more assistance to their users.

As a platform though, the e-book can include communication and collaboration between readers and the author[3]. It can also facilitate reader-to-reader interactions such as the interesting idea at ReadUps, which turns reading into a digital social experience. These types of interactivity change the nature of reading from its traditional reflective, solitary position. I like that traditional position and wouldn’t want to lose it but I’m also fascinated with these new activities that we can do with books. Interactivity challenges authors and publishers to adapt to different roles. And with respect to the book as a record, if the readers and authors use the book as a platform for communication that alters the scope of what we think of as the content of the book—a curious thing pushing at boundaries of authorship.

The issue of regulations around legal deposit, although this is changing, was poorly defined for electronic books, Web monographs, and the sort. It presented some challenges to governments to define the methodology for deposit that publishers should use and which types of publishers should comply with the legal deposit requirements (trickier due to cases where people publish directly to the Web.

The academic direct-to-Web publishing example is an example of disintermediation. The process of disintermediation, in which digital technologies made it possible for sellers (within industries that formerly needed “middlemen”) to connect to buyers without another participant in between the sales process. The publishing industry must contend with changing how it produces and manages digital objects in addition to or instead of analogue ones. The promise of disintermediation seemed at first to make it possible for more people to immediately create books (and others to obtain them). However maintaining Web sites and handling all the other processes and requirements of digital media required the introduction of new types of intermediaries[4]. Although e-books change many processes, they do not necessarily remove intermediaries. Issues around rights, transactions, and the roles of each party in the publishing ecosystem remain present.

Problems with Access

Because people read e-books on a variety of devices, including laptop or desktop computers, phones, and e-readers the e-book formats and software applications must be able to adjust to the form-factor and operating system of the device being used. The Australian Sunshine Coast Library found that one of the primary reasons people (78% in its survey) like e-books is for the portability, unfortunately proprietary formats or systems can be problematic to e-book uptake[5].

Digital restrictions management (DRM) is a significant problem for access (see Defective by Design). Not all e-books are encumbered by DRM (sometimes called digital rights management) but many are and so the systems, agreements, and policies for managing these rights are an issue both for institutions offering e-books and people that want to read them. Libraries face several critical issues[6], including precise identification of the resource and ensuring the resource’s authenticity. Much of this work corresponds to the technical systems and the legal agreements that the library implements and it requires documentation of data relationships to support extra DRM tasks[7].

Sometimes licensing and DRM requirements (due to inadequately working systems ) have caused e-book users to lose the material while reading—obviously not a challenge with an analogue book[8]. Users also need help understanding their rights when they access digital resources that are encumbered with DRM. Depending on the rights holder’s requirements, users may be restricted from using the digital resource or portions of it, may be restricted from printing it, copying it, downloading it to their own device, or only able to access it for a limited period of time.

DRM techniques (e.g digital certificates, watermarking, digital signatures or timestamps, trust systems, “secured” hardware, or encryption) sometimes rely on the user’s system hardware and OS, and since there are so many varieties of platforms, they often do not support all systems, leaving some users unable to access content at all. Likewise, the problem of disabled users’ access is an issue for users and libraries.

Using analogue content (paper books) leaves users in charge of determining whether they have the rights to access it. DRM techniques on the other hand assume that there are no rights unless the user can first satisfy the requirements of the particular DRM policy[9]. This changes the way information may be accessed from the context of public domain—an otherwise unnecessary burden of proof.

From a technical standpoint, DRM also increases the role and necessary activity of the e-book publisher (rights holder), which must permit each use of the work. But for how long? Years from now the publisher may not exist, the systems used to encumber the content with DRM may not function. Is it even still an e-book if nobody can access its content? Fortunately War and Peace already entered the public domain and has many paper back up copies.

References

  1. Jung-Yu, L., & Chih-Yen, C. (January 01, 2011). User attitudes toward dedicated e-book readers for reading: The effects of convenience, compatibility and media richness. Online Information Review, 35, 4, 558-580. Retrieved from http://dx.doi.org/10.1108/14684521111161936
  2. Joint, N. (January 01, 2010). The electronic book: a transformational library technology?. Library Review, 59, 2, 83-91. Retrieved from http://dx.doi.org/10.1108/00242531011023844 p. 86
  3. Martin, W. J., & Tian, X. (2010). Books, bytes, and business: The promise of digital publishing. Farnham, Surrey, England: Ashgate. p. 40
  4. Martin, W. J., & Tian, X. (2010). Books, bytes, and business: The promise of digital publishing. Farnham, Surrey, England: Ashgate. p. 36
  5. Duncan, R. (January 01, 2011). Ebooks and beyond: update on a survey of library users. Australasian Public Libraries and Information Services, 24, 4, 182-193. p. 48
  6. Agnew, G. (2008). Digital rights management: A librarian’s guide to technology and practise. Oxford [England: Chandos Publishing. Retrieved from p. 118
  7. Agnew, G. (2008). Digital rights management: A librarian’s guide to technology and practise. Oxford [England: Chandos Publishing. Retrieved from p. 124
  8. Joint, N. (January 01, 2010). The electronic book: a transformational library technology?. Library Review, 59, 2, 83-91. Retrieved from http://dx.doi.org/10.1108/00242531011023844 p. 86
  9. May, C. (2007). Digital rights management: The problem of expanding ownership rights. Oxford: Chandos Pub. p. 61

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