Wednesday, 16 March 2011

Enhanced Ebooks

The Arcadia Semiar series looks at the future role of academic libraries in the digital age and provides talks from leading professionals in a variety of areas several times a term.  Last night was the turn of Dr Max Whitby, who has far too long a CV to include here (needless to say, he is a highly qualified broadcaster, chemist and publisher to name but a few things into which he has dabbled).

The title of the seminar was 'Reinventing the Book' and, I must admit, I went with a sceptical outlook, expecting him to champion the ebook to the detriment of the traditional printed word.  I was, however, plesasantly corrected.  What happens to books in a digital environment?  This is a question which I have obviously considered before but Dr Whitby's approach to the answer was both inciteful and ingenious and is proving rather profitable. 

At this stage in the digital era ebooks are evolving, the role of the publisher is changing and creator/audience relationship is becoming ever closer.  It is diffiuclt to envision what the digital future holds although Whitby is rather adept at doing so when it comes to digital media - he was invlolved in 'Hyperland' (1990), a film documentary, written by Douglas Adams (an Old Johnian!) and featuring Tom Baker in a tutu guiding Adams in the world of Interactive Multimedia.  

One of his main outputs recently has been 'The Elements'.  This began as an attempt to collect a piece of every element and progressed quickly into display units and screens such as this one at the Philadelphia Chemical Heritage Centre. 
Element display tower
The project snowballed further when the iPad was released and 'The Elements' featured at the launch.  Whitby describes this as an electronic coffee table book that goes beyond the paper copy.  Each of the images rotates and the opening image of the periodic table is interactive with the catchy Tom Lehrer song (I remember my brother sending me this when I had to learn all of the elements for a Chemistry Quiz Team Final in London...didn't help me learn them but was fun all the same):

Front page of 'The Solar System'

The Elements', probably due to its unique design, educational value and graphics, has been incredibly successful on the iPad and has been followed by 'The Solar System' where you can make any planet the centre of the universe and play about with Jupiter's Red Spot.
You would be forgiven for thinking that this success would have a negative effect on the physical books sales.  Quite the opposite.  Book sales continue to grow (to the relief of the publishers) and this may well be because having an ebook is all fine and good but nothing can beat a nice shiny copy on the shelf.  It is possible, however, that the nature of this book is what has led to the maintenance of the physical sales.  The book itself is beautiful with double page spreads for each element in full colour.  I am not so sure that a fiction book would have quite the same success. 
Gold on the iPad

Whitby demonstrated 'The Solar System' and 'The Wasteland' by Eliot, which is due to launch in April.  The apps all have one thing in common - they bring a dry subject to a new digital audience.  Already existing information and material is taken and manipulated in order to create a new product.  These ebooks are not a simple copy of what you can buy in Heffers but provide the audience with something extra, which can only be experienced in the digital form.  It is in this way that our understanding will be deepened and this does not mean that physical books are outdated, they are merely being augmented with a new form of media.

Just to show how much of a hot topic this is at the moment, as I arrived home after the seminar, I heard 'Front Row' with Mark Lawson on BBC Radio 4 on my landlady's radio.  The discussion centred round enhanced ebooks and yet more interesting points were raised particularly concerning fiction and children's literacy.  The point was raised that old-fashioned books involved natural engagaement with a text and allowed the reader to create images, characters and whole worlds in their mind.  With enhanced ebooks, however, with their accompanying audio etc. this individual interaction with a text is lost.  I felt something similar when the first Harry Potter film was released and the actors playing the main roles were not at all as I had imagined them - somewhat of a disappointment.  The personal relationship with a text can be lost when other media become involved.  Another valid point was that children are more and more engaged with digital media and so we have to take books to them in the forms that they are used to in order to up literacy and their interest in reading.  All valid points and clearly this topic is one for discussion!

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