Well of course a digital record of a book or document may well be better than no record, but by no means can the two be held to be equivalent. The problem instanced at the end of Jill O’Neill’s Revisiting Nicholson Baker and Retention of Print at The Scholarly Kitchen isn’t (ever?) going to go away.

If you are a librarian you are going to be subject to conflicting forces. Yes, part of you wants to keep everything. And yes, part of you recognizes that funds to build ever more shelving and the buildings to hold it, cannot be infinite. Something’s got to give. Obviously it’s easier just to throw out the books after having scanned them.

Librarians buy many digital books from publishers, often on acrimonious terms which are really still to settle.* Many of these ebooks lack some pretty basic editorial functionality. Reading a straightforward ebook on my iPhone is absolutely fine for me, but as soon as you need too refer to an endnote, look at a table, flick back to that item a few pages earlier, or any other simple navigation task which we’ve been conditioned to find so easy in a printed book, well, then all hell breaks loose. If I wasn’t a fan of Steven Pinker I would have abandoned reading the ebook version of The better angels of our nature. As it was I had to leave aside some of the detailed arguments as they were just too hard to follow (and I don’t mean intellectually). Maybe it’s just that we as readers haven’t gotten comfortable with this navigation, and that as publishers we haven’t yet devised conventions for these sorts of maneuvers in an ebook.

But human nature being what we all know it to be, book publishers are probably never going to get their electronic books into a shape which might provide an equivalent of all the functionality which can be performed by a printed book. Going forward the outlook is a little less dire than looking back to books which were produced before we’d ever dreamed of an ebook. The sets of inadequacies Ms O’Neill discovered in Vintage’s ebook version of Nicholson Baker’s Double Fold are inevitable and probably always going to be unavoidable. The grunts who get to do this sort of work can’t ever be paid enough to care. Thinking through how a book might possibly be used by a reader is something we as an industry have over the past five centuries become pretty good at — the copyeditor is our expert in this area — but our solutions are all print and paper based. Wouldn’t it be nice if we were able to engineer a book to allow for all possible future (or even current) technologies? Sorry, I just don’t think we are clever enough. (Nor, be it admitted, is there any immediate financial incentive to do so. Maybe in the long run we will get to a place where customers might be willing to pay more for a well-engineered ebook than for just an ebook.)

Nevertheless I do have to admit that even a hard-to-navigate digital version of a book is much better than no version. And in terms of the history of the ebook (and of course of the computer) it is still early days.


* Now from Publishers Weekly comes news that publishers are being drawn into an ebook price fixing lawsuit initially targeting Amazon only.