Traveling home from Queen’s on Friday, I decided to take the ultimate litmus test of the Amazon Kindle DX. Would using it on a Belfast city bus lead to me getting my head kicked in, for a) flashing a valuable piece of personal electronics or b) just being too nerdy in public?
I made it home without any injury being sustained. Although my perception of the Kindle’s price tag (and therefore its suitability for use on a Metro bus) is probably distorted, because I didn’t actually pony up £149 for it myself. Having been awarded funds from the Queen’s Annual Fund (a source of “unrestricted funds for projects and institutional priorities that can bring about an immediate impact to today’s students”), the library at Queen’s University Belfast has invested in five Kindles pre-loaded with books of specific interest to planning students at the School of Planning, Architecture and Civil Engineering. They’re available now at the McClay Library for students and staff to borrow and evaluate. They are loaned on pretty much the same terms as ordinary books, four weeks for undergrad and taught postgrad, twelve weeks for research postgrad and staff.
The same selection of titles have been loaded onto Kindles 1-4, with a slightly different selection on number 5. I’m not sure whether these now exist in the library’s QCat system, but in theory you should now be able to locate these books on a Kindle as well as on the shelf, and borrow the device instead of one or multiple books.
This has some obvious advantages and disadvantages. If the book you want is out, lost or not in our collection, you can borrow it and many others. But then again, if one borrower takes out a Kindle for just one title, that’s effectively a waste of all the other books pre-loaded onto it, especially since other borrowers might want them while it’s out, thereby negating the advantage of an ebook reader to cover for books not in the physical collection. One desirable outcome of this trial is that in future, larger numbers of ebook readers like the Kindle might be kept empty in stock, but with a base station that could upload ebooks as they are required by borrowers. I’ve no idea whether the software and licensing of the Kinde system would support that kind of deployment, because my experience of ebook marketing so far has been almost entirely to the private consumer, who buys books one at a time and installs them for life on his or her device. If it isn’t possible, it would seem a pretty huge oversight on the ebook industry not to support hot-syncing of their devices.
Until this week, I’d never handled or used a Kindle before. First impressions count, and I had a bit of time on my journey home to play around with the Kindle and read some of the text.
From a physical design point of view, let’s not beat about the bush. The Kindle sucks. It is horrible to hold, manipulate and use. A few years ago I might not have been so cruel, but then Apple came along and released the iPad. Strangely, despite the iPad being a useless e-reader itself, Apple have changed the whole e-reader game completely. While the iPad has a problematic light emitting screen behind a glossy layer of glass, which is difficult to read from in direct or changing light conditions, it has at least been designed by a team of people who care deeply about the tactile experience of holding and using it. The Kindle has a nasty cheap plastic and faux-aluminium body, with horrible interface buttons and keyboard about sixty percent the size it needs to be to be useful.
Likewise, the software interface is dreadful. Books are listed by title, and navigation is slow and unintuitive. While I could get used to this with time, once you get into the e-books there are numerous annoying formatting errors. Chapter and section headings appear to have lost their page breaks, so chapter titles appear at the bottom of the screen and their text begins on the next. In one text, chapter one had merged with the book’s acknowledgements on the previous page.
Crucially, for academic users, the e-books appear to have had their printed edition page numbers replaced by electronic ‘location’ numbers. It makes sense to adapt the book’s navigation to the e-reader format, but sadly this is a nascent medium, and I can’t cite references in my own work without the page number of a known and dated paper edition. If the Kindle is to be useful for academics, I would rather that the format stuck to the page format of the paper books themselves so that I could use it without having to refer to paper copy as well.
Without question, however, the Kindle excels with its display. The beautiful electronic paper display is a pleasure to read off, and unlike light emitting screens (on computers, iPads, phones etc) it is both comfortable to use and legible in all light conditions, most notably the rapidly changing light and shade cast through the window of a moving vehicle.
Amazon and Apple are, to some extent, going head to head in the e-reader market with their Kindle and iPad, respectively. Sadly, both are flawed as electronic readers. The iPad has the design nailed, but the screen is horrible for extended reading. The Kindle has a beautiful screen to read from, but the interface is hellish, and the formatting of the books is useless for serious academic citation. Perhaps I’m unaware of developments in this field, but there is also a fundamental weakness in the academic use of e-readers preloaded with purchased titles: the e-reader would seem to me have a much more useful role in the library if it can be loaded and loaned dynamically, with whatever book a borrower wants but can’t get at that moment.
If you want to try a Kindle for yourself, you can Check out a Kindle from the QUB McClay Library. Each unit is supplied with a feedback form (also online here) for you to share your thoughts on the trial.