The Codex is Dead; Long Live the Codex

ACRLog had a post last week about humanists wanting print books rather than ebooks. Here’s a key passage:

Ebooks seem like sweet low-hanging fruit – they have enhanced searchability, accessibility at any time or place, and reduced storage and preservation costs. What’s not to love? Ebooks seem to make our students very happy. Often they don’t want to read a book cover to cover (although their professors might wish they would), and searching for relevant passages seems to satisfy their needs for many assignments. And journal literature seems exempt from the preference for print – I haven’t heard many complaints about deaccessioning back runs of print journals represented in JSTOR’s collections, for instance.

When thinking of humanities scholars and their books, I don’t see how it matters if most students don’t want to read their books all the way through or want to treat scholarly monographs the way they treat encyclopedias, as collections of information tidbits to pick and choose among. The scholarly monograph in the humanities isn’t designed to be read that way. It’s not a report of research results, but the result of research, and the analyses and arguments develop throughout the book or at least throughout the chapters. And what’s more, scholars don’t just dip into one book at a time to get some useful fact; they immerse themselves in books and frequently move among many different books while working.

The writer notes that the same faculty who demand print books for their work are happy to read novels on their ebook readers while relaxing or traveling. “It’s one thing, they tell us, to read for pleasure on a screen – but it’s quite another to read for understanding, for critique, for engaging in the scholarly conversation. And this isn’t a generational matter – some of the faculty I know who seem most committed to print are younger than forty.” I don’t know why this would surprise any librarians who work in the humanities. It’s easy to forget amidst the technological splendor that the codex is an extremely useful tool. Humanists often work on research projects that involve examining multiple texts and comparing them, sometimes moving from book to book and sometimes from passage to passage within those books. Spreading several books on a desk and flipping back and forth between passages is relatively easy, and much easier than trying to do the same thing on any current ebook reader. Annotating a book with pencil in hand is also faster and easier than doing it on any ebook readers I’ve yet seen. It’s easy enough for me to think of examples from my own work. This summer I was writing a book chapter that was more or less intellectual history. The bulk of the chapter focused on four or five primary texts as well as a handful of secondary sources. I was trying both to analyze specific arguments occurring throughout the primary texts as well as compare the arguments to those in the other primary texts. The easiest way for me to do this was to have the books spread out around me, so that I could quickly put down one and pick up another or flip back and forth between several relevant passages in the same book.

Working with printed books is at the moment the fastest and easiest way to do this, which is probably why the scholars who do this sort of work the most like printed books. Everything else is clunky by comparison, especially ebook readers. This kind of work explains why humanists like ebook readers for casual reading but not for scholarly work. Leaving aside the DRM restrictions that make getting and reading ebooks so irritating at times, the ebook reader technology just isn’t sophisticated enough for widespread humanistic scholarly use yet. When it’s possible to flip instantly among several books and between passages on a device that’s easy on the eyes and allows annotation as quick as a pencil, this might change. Indeed, I was unsurprised by the Ebrary ebook survey that showed “The vast majority of students would choose electronic over print if it were available and if better tools along with fewer restrictions were offered.” To that I would add two caveats: first, better tools with fewer restrictions aren’t being offered, and second, the majority of students aren’t humanities scholars. My library did a large campus survey of faculty and students last year. 92% of humanists viewed print books as “essential.” This will change when the new tools become as adequate and easy to use as the old tools.

Sure, there might be ways around this, assuming one can get all the necessary books in digital format. (For the project I was working on this summer, I used books that were print-only and hard to get because few libraries held them, and they weren’t for sale or I would have purchased them for my own library. So much for PDA-only libraries relying on used-book dealers to meet their retrospective collection development needs.) But assuming I could, what current technology would suffice to replicate the ease of moving among books and passages of books? Maybe having six tablet computers would work. They would have to be devices that displayed PDFs well, too, so that the secondary journal literature could also easily be read. That sort of defeats the purpose of ebooks, because if I had to carry around, much less purchase, a handful of ebook readers the main purpose of having an ebook reader is eliminated.

I think this is an example where breathless ebook prophets are pushing a format that for now remains an inadequate tool for humanistic scholarly research, and I suspect they’re doing so because they never do any of that type of research, so they either don’t know or don’t care about the inadequate tools. Technology that doesn’t make work easier is bad technology, no matter how much some people might like it for their casual reading. When the tools improve, no one will be protesting the demise of the codex. The ideal might be one of those virtual reality gesture-input computers like in Minority Report. All it might take is a computer that could simultaneous project multiple, easily manipulated texts in the space surrounding a scholar, texts that could be read, highlighted, annotated, and flipped through as easily as printed books. Making copying and pasting of quotations easily into whatever passes for a virtual reality word processor would be a boon as well. When that technology is as ubiquitous in academia as printed books, then the problem will be solved and humanists might abandon the codex. And if they don’t, that’s the time to start chastising them for their reactionary views, because it’s not reactionary to resist technology that makes one’s life more difficult.

The immediate future will be considerably more banal, but I can see the trend with both the new Ebrary ebook downloads and the new ebook platform on the new Project Muse beta site. Both allow quick and easy downloading of portions of books into PDF format, and the entire book if you don’t mind it being broken up into sections or chapters. This mimics the availability of scholarly articles through many databases, and everyone admits that even humanist scholars have no problem with electronic articles, just electronic books. That’s because most of them print the articles out and read them on paper, which they will now be able to do with lots of future ebooks. I’d rather have the virtual reality library, but until that happens PDF printouts might be as close to an ebook-only future as most humanists are likely to get. Libraries might stop buying printed books some day. The codex is dead. Scholars will then print out their PDF ebooks to make reading and research easier. Love live the codex.

 

3 thoughts on “The Codex is Dead; Long Live the Codex

  1. Pingback: Are Ebooks really the appropriate tool for the academic environment? When do they not work? | University of Toronto Academic Librarians

  2. Well said! The misunderstanding of Humanities Scholars’ research needs is something I find myself actively resisting right now in one of the country’s top academic libraries. IT and administration are looking for easy answers, and e-prophets are too ready to supply a load of ‘em.
    And I just couldn’t agree more with this “it’s not reac­tionary to resist tech­nol­ogy that makes one’s life more difficult.”

    Thanks, Wayne.

  3. Your point about being able to switch back and forth easily between two or more texts, images or notes is well taken. It’s something we do all the time – just take a look at any researcher’s carrel desk.

    All the same, have you tried setting up your computer with multiple virtual workspaces (each with one or more texts or images on view) and then flipping back and forth between these using multi-touch gestures (if you have a trackpad) or keyboard shortcuts? It’s a little disconcerting at first but comes quite close to reproducing the Minority Report interface (it’s actually better, since you don’t need to be at such a distance from your texts).

    Something else that’s worth trying out is downloading your text as a series of sequential image files and then rapidly scrolling through these in “cover flow” mode (a Mac OSX term – but you can do the same on Windows as well). Very helpful in the case of early books, for example, to jump to a new chapter or an illustration.

    There are already a lot of different ways to move beyond the “one ebook text at a time paradigm”. Personally, most times, I still prefer to have the texts in front of me on a large, well lit table (in a quiet library, with a place to plug in my laptop..). But I’m also very grateful for the flexibilities afforded by different modes of digital representation.

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