Stop the Press? Paper, e-books or both?

Welcome new readers. This post could also be titled “How not to launch a blog”. We’ve been testing the site with content for a little while with some archaeological content. Tomorrow our first post on this month’s theme Distance goes live, so I had a tech post scheduled for today.

This post has been shuffled through a few drafts. Before I bought a Kindle is was along the lines of “Am I a techno-curmudgeon?” After I bought a Kindle it became more “Duh! I am a techno-curmudgeon!” By curmudgeon I don’t mean Luddite. I mean people who can use technology but for reasons other than failings of the technology choose not to. Here’s an example that I might have agreed with till a couple of years ago.

Airminded Blog on Kindle
Airminded Blog on Kindle

I attended a couple of workshops on publishing, one involving academic publishers. The printed monograph was held up as the peak of publication to which all graduate students should aspire. And the emphasis was on print, not e-publishing. There was one go-to argument that all the speakers shared. “The problem with an e-book,” they would say with a sardonic rise of an eyebrow, “is you can’t read it in the bath!” We all laughed and ignored the fact that you’d be mad to read a cheaply bound ~£100 academic book in the bath. Still, if you feel this is a problem, not only can you read an e-book in the bath, you can read one in the shower and while diving at a depth of up to five metres, thanks to this waterproofing device.

If reading in the bath really was the killer app for dead tree books, then I’ve single-handedly revolutionised the publishing industry. In fact the problem is more likely that “The problem with e-books raise eyebrow is they’re not printed books.” True, but this is not a strong argument for nor against them. There are advantages in favour of both formats.

The unassailable advantage of hard copy for me has been its readability. I can read short texts on a computer monitor, but a monograph has simply not been practical. Long periods of monitor use give me eye-strain. The prime measure of any text format has to be ‘Can you read it?’. The iPad is readable, but I still prefer paper. The Kindle in contrast is extremely readable. Amazon has a difficult job selling it to sceptics because the display is essential to its success and its display is primarily shown to non-owners through a computer monitor, which kills it flat. If we are comparing default settings, then I still think a book beats a Kindle but it’s close. It’s not just that the dots per inch are better with a book, there’s a tactile experience.

If I’m reading a book I know roughly how far I am through it by the feel of pages in my left hand. A Kindle is light, but it feels the same regardless of whether you’re at the start or the end. The same is true for the lack of tactile sensation for other e-readers. There’s also a matter of turning pages. Turning a physical page gives your eyes a micro-break from the script. You don’t get this so much with a Kindle, and if you’re scrolling text you positively have to concentrate on moving script to keep your place. This is all part of the reading experience. But reading is not always default. I can change the settings on an e-reader and some print books have their own problems.

For example the Western Greeks by Caratelli is a lovely book and if it ever falls of my bookshelf and onto my head, I’ll be hospitalised. There are a few books I have that are simply too big to read comfortably. Book size is not a weight problem for electronic books. An e-version would be light enough to be hand-held and read for long periods.

Print-size is another obvious issue, or it will be as your sight gets worse. A great deal is made of the fact you can read a book after a couple of centuries. This is true. At the same time if your eyesight goes then the physical presence of your bookshelves are little comfort. E-books are more easily converted into talking books.

I’m also wary of how meaningful the claim you can read books after centuries is. You can’t read a centuries old e-book yet, but there’s a very obvious reason for that. Some of the scepticism is well-founded. There are unreadable electronic formats that are lost. I need to get a USB cassette player to copy an Orb album I have because I don’t have the physical means to play it and it was deleted on the day of release so there are no MP3 versions to buy. I also have unreadable floppy discs and USB sticks will pass soon. However, what is changing is that information is moving from fixed formats. My thesis went through several from .doc, .pages, .whatever-open-office-is, a brief period on Google Docs and finally .docx and .pdf for submission. There are, and will continue to be problems with readable formats, but ASCII is proving durable. Format translation looks like a soluble problem – though some texts may be lost.

In contrast hard copy books are tied to their physical format. Shelves upon shelves of them sit in libraries mocking e-books with their permanence. Libraries don’t keep empty shelves of all the books that have been lost. It may be different for modern historians, but if you’re working in the medieval period or earlier there’s a good chance that you’ll find key texts are missing. Again there are obvious reasons for that, but if we seriously consider the possibility that all electronic repositories could be turned off at the same time as a mark against e-books, then equally we have to accept the possible evolution of a self-igniting bookworm and the damage it could cause to physical books, especially those with painfully small print runs. The limit physical numbers of many monographs makes them susceptible to loss through reckless deaccessions or accidental damage.

The thing that finally persuaded me my preference for paper wasn’t rational was note-taking. Historiann (ignore the bath reference) makes a good point that it’s easier to make notes in the margin of a printed book. I thought you couldn’t with an e-book. Ignore the fact that I don’t write in books, and that even if I wanted to I’d never have a pen handy, it’s nice to have the option. There are reader programs that store annotations with a file, but usually the notes are tied to a specific file, and it’s a pain to cut ‘n’ paste the text into a document. I didn’t spot that book-written notes are tied to the one copy of a text till six months ago. About the same time I realised that cut ‘n’ paste from a regular paper book is rubbish.

It turns out that Kindle notes can be shared between devices, but that’s something to explore another time.

It wasn’t simply that e-books have their drawbacks, it was also that the ‘e-‘ leads me to have much higher expectations for the usability of an e-book. Concentrating on the limitations of an e-book meant I wasn’t considering in what ways an e-book is better and in some ways e-books are better. These days indices are afterthoughts in some books. Searchability is a big bonus. At the same time you have a lot fewer headaches if you accidentally drop a book and tread on it than if you do the same with a Kindle. I’ve done the experiment. DRM means it’s so much easier to lend a physical book. I don’t condone cracking Amazon’s DRM, and more importantly I don’t know how to do it yet. Academics could be asking why books need DRM, but for now it’s something we have to live with. There’s also no second-hand market for e-books which will make it more difficult to buy cheap gems in the future.

The paper versus electronic argument interests me because it’s the most serious challenge to paper books yet. This isn’t a genre shift like claiming film, television or radio will kill books. It’s closer to the shift from parchment to paper. There are good reasons why paper books are still a good idea, but the arguments are all stacked in favour of the one format. The one factor I have missed out above is that electronic publishing is potentially so much cheaper. This could be a way to preserve texts in both formats. The high-priced library market can still be served with physical books, but e-books should make affordable editions for personal use feasible. Whether or not they will remains to be seen, but I don’t think it’s in the consumers’ interest to be forced into one format or the other.

For this reason something I’d like to do is experiment with a Kindle version of the blog. If the authors are happy, and time allows it’s possible we will produce a Kindle Single based on ‘Distance’. The first post on the theme comes up tomorrow. This is not because pinning the blog to a fixed volume makes it ‘better’. The new format is different. It opens the opportunity to access new audiences and new opportunities. Hopefully we’ll be able to explore what you can do with archaeology and new media, rather than fit within a rigid definition.

For Distance we have opinion pieces, some referenced discussions and a photo-essay. These will be scheduled on Tuesdays, and some Thursday. That leaves plenty of room on Wednesdays and Fridays for people to blog about other things. If you’d like to take part, leave a comment below or on our Facebook page.

CFPo: Distance

Distance buttonI don’t think that telling bloggers “Go, be social with one another and form a community” is that best way to seed a community. There are also effects that happen when you pull people on to a similar subject, even if it’s a loose focus. So we’re going to have themes that run for a month. For we’ve decided stylistically that themes will be based around a word (with an optional subtitle). For June the theme will be ‘Distance’, so here’s a CFPo, a call for posts rather than papers.

It’s an intentionally abstract term because archaeology usually involves thinking across a distance in different ways. It’s often the study of human behaviour of a different time, but it can also be a matter of a different place. It involves translating what you see and placing your findings in terms of your own culture – or an imagined pan-academic culture. Here is different to there and how we come to terms with that difference matters. You can take the prompt in other ways. Does academic archaeology ignore commercial archaeology from inside an ivory bunker? Is there an Atlantic divide in archaeology, or is there a bigger intellectual distance between European archaeologists and the English-speaking world? Or there are practical problems. What is the most remote place you’ve worked? What techniques have you developed to record a site from a different vantage point away from the work area?

I’ve got a hit-list wish list of people I’ll try to get blogging on the theme who I’ll be contacting later in the month, but that’s no reason to stop you saying you’d like to take part now. Either leave a comment on the Facebook page or below and I’ll arrange an account for you. For the sake of my nerves I’d like some completed posts ready before June starts, but the posts will be scheduled to appear throughout June. If you’re not a blogger, but want to take part I can convert plain text or a rtf / doc / pages file into a post for you. Yes, some non-bloggers are on my wish list too.

If you’d like to run a theme of your own, then that would make me very happy too. Again contact me or Colleen Morgan via the Facebook page or the comment form below and we’ll try to sort something out.

Not all entries in June have to be on theme, so if you’ve got something you’d like to say and want to give Distance a pass you can do that.

Post Suggestions

Blogging Woman

We can open the site up to more authors. More authors means more people finding bugs before we start getting a large readership. If you have something you’re burning to write we can set you up with an author account now. Just volunteer on the Then Dig Facebook page. Telling people to write something is a good way to make a mind go blank. Archaeology is good, but if you need more of a prompt than that, here are a few suggestions.

Research Blogging: The Research Blogging website aggregates posts discussing peer-reviewed papers. We can’t get registered on that yet, because we don’t have any suitable posts here, but it would be nice to be able to do that. Teofilo at Gambler’s House is a good source of inspiration if you want to see research blogging done well.

Technology & Techniques: This is verging into ProfHacker territory, but I’d like to see a post of series of posts on how to get the most out of Scrivener. There’s also plenty of scope for discussing teaching issues or outreach techniques. For tech blogging a few subjects that come to mind are Dropbox, Geotagging, Photosynth, Helikite & Balloon based photography, and Twitter. And everyone knows more about iPhone apps than me.

Reviews: I have a book review scheduled for Friday. It’s a volume associated with a conference, but you’re welcome to go beyond books. Books are getting ridiculously expensive these days (see my forthcoming review). What about archaeological content in media we can access? TV, film, games and websites? Seen a good museum exhibit recently? Tell the world about it.

News: The current Big Thing I’m getting on my feeds is the body of a girl found dating from around AD 50 has been found outside a Roman town. The injury in the back of the skull says murder, and the burial indicates ‘a Pagan rather than local burial’. Simply saying “Hey! Dead girl found!” like a few blogs are tells me nothing new. Someone taking the time to explain that actually a female aged 16-20 was not a ‘girl’ in this period would be saying something interesting, particularly if they can tie it in to more that we know about gender archaeology and the ancient world. Another route might be to mention that while AD 50 is technically post-Jesus it’s highly unlikely Christianity was present in Britannia at the time so Pagan is not a helpful term. Here’s what we have found as evidence of the variety of religious beliefs in the Roman Empire…

Links: Sometimes you simply read a post on someone else’s blog that’s cool. Why not link to it? Or the first paragraph or two of a post on your own site if you like. We’ll want someone to do that, so why not you?

Add your own comments or ideas below. You can also claim dibs on these here or on our Facebook page.

Photo: iStillness by David Pham. Licenced with a Creative Commons BY-NC-SA licence.

Plugins for an academic group blog: Referencing & Footnotes

For reasons that have hopefully become obvious I’ve been thinking what plugins would be useful for an academic group blog on WordPress.

Referencing & Footnotes

A plug. Photo by Pulpolux!!! CC BY-NC
Photo by Pulpolux!!! CC BY-NC

In terms of integrating references the three big programs are EndNote, Mendeley and Zotero. It would be easy to get lost in an argument about which of these is the best system. I don’t think that matters. What is best for me is not necessarily best for you. Also two of these systems are on the web, so they could be very different in six months. What is best now might not be best soon. So the best solution for integrating with WordPress is to be able to handle as many systems as possible.
Continue reading Plugins for an academic group blog: Referencing & Footnotes