We’ve recently moved house, and my collection of books, many of them heavily marked up with multi-colored highlights, Post-Its, and bookmarks, remains something of a storage issue. Over the last several months, I’ve been experimenting with digital books on an iPad.
There’s a lot to be said both for and against services like Amazon’s Kindle and Apple’s iBook. The selection and convenience is a strong positive, and eBooks not only don’t fill up my groaning Swedish flatpack bookshelves, they also cost less, which is no small consideration for a heavy reader. I might read a paperback novel, or borrow one from the library, and never need to refer to the thing again. I’ve subscribed to a weekly UK photography magazine for 6 years, but it costs a lot more since we moved to the States. I rarely save the paper copy, so why not save some money and some trees by reading this, and other magazines, online?
However, if I spend hours working my way through a non-fiction book, marking it up and ‘penciling in’ comments, its done with the assumption of perpetual access to that book and my annotations. The primitive highlighting and markup functionality of Kindle and iBooks is annoying for the serious annotator, but my biggest concern about the commercial eBook model is that I’m totally beholden to the long term viability of the vendor. If I’m using a proprietary file format, locked up with a digital rights mechanism, I’m dependent upon access to that vendor’s server, and I’m dependent upon reliable support for my device (and its successors)—indefinitely. Its not a very open system.
On the plus side, if our house burns down, at least I’ve still got copies of all my eBooks. If I get stuck somewhere without my iPad, I can still access a relatively recent copy of an annotated book on my iPhone, and magazines can be downloaded on the fly. But for long term access to the intellectual property I’ve paid for, and for the added metavalue of my personal annotations, proprietary and rights-managed formats represent a significant risk. If the bookseller goes out of business, they take my books with them.
When you pay for paper, you are control of the destiny of that document, and all of the metadata that you and other readers have added to that information medium. When you pay for an eBook, you are only leasing it. That’s a great model for light reading, but its detrimental to long term scholarship.