Friday, September 12, 2014

Library digital collection blues

My university's library is moving towards reducing its print collection and replacing it with a digital collection. I support this move, both because this will enable the library to use its space more efficiently (more room is needed for student study spaces, as these often fill up), and because the right sort of digital collection would be more efficient for research than a print collection. However, I'm concerned that the current incarnation of the digital collection is not as useful as a print collection, and I believe this is a common problem in libraries that are going digital right now. 

As I understand it, the library's e-books can be viewed online in .html format or downloaded in Adobe Digital Editions format. The former option seems to suffer from two drawbacks. First, it can only be accessed with an internet connection. Second, in the sample e-book I examined, Innovative Buddhist Women by Karma Lekshe Tsomo, the image quality (reflected in the clarity of the text) was noticeably poor. It's fine for reading a couple of pages, but seems like it would be a strain to try to read the entire book carefully, which is necessary for students and faculty engaged in research.

The download option has two drawbacks of its own. First, it seems that a book can only be downloaded for up to 7 days before it is scuttled by the publisher's software. 

Second, the process of downloading is not easy or simple. When I attempted to download the aforementioned e-book, I was first prompted to download Adobe Digital Editions. It is annoying to have to use a new piece of software when they are already a lot of common file formats out there (.pdf comes to mind). How many students will persist past this initial roadblock?

Third, after downloading the new software, the user is prompted to provide an Adobe Digital Editions ID. I have no idea what this ID is or how to get it. After deciding to view the e-book without the ID (which means, evidently, that I can only use the book on one computer or device and not share it between computers or devices, itself a problem), I was finally able to view the e-book. 

Fourth, while the e-book does share the same pagination as the print edition, which is necessary for research purposes, there is a serious problem with the fonts in this particular e-book. I assume these kinds of problems occur more generally, though, since the e-book is not simply a .pdf or other file type which captures an image of the print version of the book. With Innovative Buddhist Women, all of the letters in Sanskrit words which require diacritical marks are in a different, hard-to-read, and awkwardly sized font that doesn't match the rest of the text. In other words, the e-book version of this book is as difficult to read for long periods as the .html version which is accessible via the library's website, but for different reasons.

It appears I am not the only one to complain about the current state of many e-books available through university libraries. Bob Pasnau, of the University of Colorado, has made similar complaints about Oxford Scholarship Online. Pasnau also explains part of the underlying problem, which is that publishers are not putting as much thought and care into their digital editions as they are into their print editions.

I am not very confident that these problems will be solved soon. I wish they would be, because of the great potential of a properly designed digital collection.
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