[teknoids] Kindle thoughts/questions

Andrew Plumb-Larrick calarrick at gmail.com
Mon Jul 13 10:21:44 EDT 2009

Hi all,

A few folks suggested that this group might have further thoughts about
Kindles and other readers in the context of law school and university
technical infrastructures.


---------- Forwarded message ----------
From: Andrew Larrick <cap95 at case.edu>
Date: Mon, Jul 6, 2009 at 4:49 PM
Subject: Re: [cssis-l] Faculty with Kindles in law schools - survey results
Cc: AALL Computing Services SIS <cssis-l at aallnet.org>

Hi all,

Since Lyo's quick survey, and discussion regarding recent CALI and upcoming
ALA sessions, I've been spending a good amount of attention to e-readers and
what they may come to mean to our library users.  At Case we debated
acquiring a couple of Kindles in the "load up and lend" model earlier this
spring, but rejected the idea on the grounds that we didn't really have a
business case based on the content available at the time.  We may reconsider
in the future.

The radical thing here is the untethering of digital texts from the
networked PC (the subsidized cellular wireless is a big brand advantage of
Amazon/Kindle, but the point is that compared to reading something on the
Web it is still a non-continuous connection).  Unless we instead end up with
a truly ubiquitous, fast, free, universal, seamless wireless network in the
near future (which seems less likely for multiple technical, economic, and
social reasons) I would expect that portable devices that can 'carry' an
un-tethered digital version will be an important part of text and reading
'going digital' any time soon (whether through dedicated digital-ink devices
or not).  I'd put the likelihood that the "flip" will happen soon moderately

Suppose that what we are seeing now follows the pattern set with music,
movies, digital photography -- i.e. the digital form of the medium goes
through something of a slow build for a number of years ( already far more
than a few for text, of course), there's a lot of skepticism, the economic
sense of the transition gradually appears to key participants, and then when
a critical mass is reached the "flip" to digital dominance is very rapid.
If so, in a very few years we may see most personal, consumer, book
consumption "gone digital" and the analog medium reduced to a niche product
-- maybe a bigger niche than vinyl records or slide film, say, since there
are plenty of special cases for books (art books and 'coffee table' books
for example, and the very existence of book collections as decorative
objects in the way few other analog containers have been) -- but a niche all
the same.  There's a lot yet to happen on the technology front in terms of
format standardization, etc., but as library leaders and managers we should
be prepared for this transition to happen, and possibly quite soon.

If this is right, what does that mean to us as libraries?  We come from a
background of an at least partially failed model of "ebooks" for the library
-- the kind that required sitting in front of the online computer and that
I've rarely been able to get faculty and students to consider consulting in
lieu of a printed copy.  They work for some kinds of works (the O'Reilly
stuff on Safari), and do the trick in a pinch, and my anecdotal sense is
that general acceptance has (slowly) increased over time but it is still
pretty low.  Treatise content in Lexis and Westlaw is another model, but an
unusual one and perhaps the frustrations of legal-research instructors in
urging students to use it in a print-like, contextualizing, manner indicates
a 'failure' of a different kind.

I'd be interested in having a discussion and hearing about any work you all
have put into some of the ensuing challenges/tensions.  Points that occur to
me (in addition to formatting/footnote/etc. issues) include:

1) Foretaste of the death of the traditional library "intermediary" role for
'ordinary' (popular, mid-price or lower) books?  A big challenge for public
libraries, a medium-sized challenge for special libraries like "us."  A move
to publication of ebooks in either a very locked-down format (Amazon Kindle)
or through a move to sale/dowload of DRM-free packages (as has ultimately
happened with music files) focuses on the end-user in a way that removes a
library-type role.  Is there a library model?  A very big "maybe" for some
of the Kindle-competitors with lendable DRM models... interesting note that
(contrary, I think, to much of the ideological leaning in the library
community) library ebook models all seem to *require* robust and functional
DRM.  And even then, the removal of physical objects and associated
constraints of place could allow an emergence of non-localized subscription
libraries or any number of other lending or rental business models to
supplement and compete with the traditional localized library.

2) Books are closer to the heart of the traditions and analysis of copyright
than any other media and for books to 'go digital' will heighten the
tensions in the law and policy of content distribution -- e.g. amplifying
what seems to be the decline of the relevance of the distribution right and
its "first sale" limitation.

3) What is the model for text works that have never been economically
produced and sold to individuals?  In law, this would include the full blown
multi-volume treatise, for example.  Are they a dying medium (there's been
commentary/discussion about new models for casebooks/textbooks -- maybe for
the more scholarly long-form work as well)?  Will they still be "ok" with
the online tether for authenticated, library-based, site-licenses and other
group subscriptions?  Susceptible to 'lendable' DRM on individual
chapters/units (is it robust enough for the vendors? capable of offering
adequate user protections to prudent purchasing libraries?)?  Or are these
just not really "book like" any more in the way they are used -- more
susceptible to integration in the online legal research systems with
predominantly non-linear access and use steered in significant part by
behind-the-scenes Lexis and Westlaw algorithms.

4) PDF libraries (Hein Online, JSTOR, etc.) -- most devices can show pdfs,
but the hardware-reader ideal would be a "reflowable" style document not
offered by these repositories for the very good reason that it would be at
odds with one key purpose of their fixed, document-image, pdfs to provide an
authentic photographic reproduction of a definitive, print, "original."
Will they need to offer both?  Must our concern with (or belief in) the
sanctity of paginated print-derived "original" versions die out?

5) What's Google up to?  It seems like whatever comes of their intention to
sell e-book files of all of the public-domain content in Google Books and
in-copyright books from participating publishers will be a potential
game-changer in terms of defining formats and user expectations.

6) Or, does this even affect our content/users at all?  After all, the only
radical thing here is the removal of the tether to the Internet.  But most
of us and of our users sit most of the day in front of, and access all of
our work content on, networked PCs anyway (though it doesn't stop us/them
from printing out articles by the ream).  Some of the frustrations
researchers rightly express with online formats as versus "book based"
research are not helped by portable readers -- e.g. you can't even
imperfectly emulate having a bunch of volumes open on the desk in front of
you at once unless you have a lot of open browser windows on a distinctly
non-portable multiple-monitor computer.  E-reader hardware devices are even
more compromised in this respect than is the big-screen desktop computer,
and are no where near cheap enough (yet?) to use multiple devices to stand
in for our multiple print volumes open on the table (which would pose other
difficulties anyway).  Even so it seems like the things our users most want
to have 'on the run' (journal articles and other periodical articles,
single-volume monographs...) will ultimately be heavily used in this
format.  In a weird sort of way, if portable reading devices pull users away
from spending the day in front of the PC with 43 browser windows open, could
it even help bring a return of sorts to linear reading and analysis?  Will
study tables of the future consist of large display panels in which to plug
ones personal portable device in order to flexibly display and arrange
textual/literary content?

7) Another "blow over" possibility -- will e-reading devices never
adequately substitute for printing it all out?  After all, the reason those
networked ebooks are hugely unpopular with our users when compared to print
books, but that electronic journals are just the opposite (with most users
unwilling to even look at a printed journal volume) is that journal articles
are available for printout and networked ebooks typically have major
printing constraints.  Are e-reading devices that scholarly readers (who
mark up and take notes and highlight on those voluminous printouts) will
accept still farther away than my other comments/questions account for?

Sorry for the length, but I wanted to throw out some semi-digested thoughts
and hope to hear (on list or off) from others who are thinking about these


C. Andrew (Plumb-)Larrick
Associate Director for Public Services
The Ben C. Green Law Library
Case Western Reserve University
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