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an Exciting Experiment

Contrary to popular belief, Susan Ives has not read everything ever written, but she is working on it. She is a former president of Alamo PC.

I was born 40 years too soon.

My parents would drop me off at the library for two hours every Tuesday night while my brother was at his Cub Scout meeting. On the return trip I’d have armloads of books, as many as the librarian would let me check out. Every Tuesday night I was sent to bed with the same stern warning.

“Those books have to last you a whole week, Susan,” my mother would remind me. As soon as the door was closed, I scootched under the blankets with a flashlight and would read until the batteries dried up. The books always ran out before the week did.

A former Librarian of Congress, Daniel J. Boorstein, said, “A wonderful thing about a book, in contrast to a computer screen, is that you can take it to bed with you.” He was wrong.

The San Antonio Library has purchased 14 RCA REB1100 eBook Readers, each of them preloaded with 15 complete titles. According to project leader Katie Enright, this is a pilot program that will last at least six months. The eBooks are currently available for checkout in the Central Library and at four branches: Brook Hollow, Carver, Cortez and Great Northwest. 

All five libraries carry two “sampler” devices, which contain a mix of 15 books in a variety of genres. In addition, Central carries mystery, thriller, romance and science fiction/fantasy eBooks. I got the thriller package.

An eBook is an electronic book, one reads on a screen. Some eBook formats can be read on a desktop computer screen, others on a handheld device loaded with the Windows CE or Palm Operating system. eBook readers are handheld devices that you can read in bed, while hanging onto a subway strap, or load with a couple of week’s worth of books to fit in your carry-on bag. 

I reserved my eBook over the phone and only had to wait a few days until the pickup notice came in the mail. I went to the Central Library Media Room on the first floor and reported to the checkout desk there. I was immediately whisked into a back room and asked to show my library card and photo ID. I then filled out terrifying form agreeing to guard the device with my life. The library paid $299 for the reader (the list price has since dropped to $149), and when you add in the leather slip case, battery charger, stylus, cleaning cloth and insulated lunch pail to haul it all in, I had become responsible for $355 in city property.

The librarian gave me a quick, enthusiastic and complete tutorial on using the eBook. Printed instructions are also tucked into the bag. The checkout period is three weeks, with no renewals. The device has to be returned to the library from where it was checked out.

Katie, the librarian in charge of the project, cited two main benefits of eBooks. First, you can carry 15 books (about 80,000 pages of text) in a compact space. The reader weighs 18 ounces, not much larger than a paperback book. This would be ideal for when you’re on a business trip or vacation. The backlighting is a boon for reading in the dark – I tried it with the lights off (yes, I still read in bed) and it was no problem at all.

Groucho Marx said, “Outside of a dog, a book is a man's best friend. Inside of a dog, it's too dark to read.” He was wrong, too.

Katie didn’t mention that the book is a dream to read one-handed. I also have the rude habit of reading at the dinner table and can turn my electronic pages without having to put down my fork. 

Many of the older readers who shop at Remember the Alibi, the mystery bookstore where I sometime work, tell me that they’ve given up reading hardback books because they’re to heavy to hold for long periods. Many also closely examine paperbacks and reject books where the type is too small or closely spaced. The large, well-proportioned type on the eBook compensates for these handicaps.

When the system was described to me I had a few suggestions. I had read seven of the 15 selections pre-loaded on the thriller eBook, and six of the mystery ones. Wouldn’t it make more sense to have a catalogue of the available books and load them according to the patron’s preference? Katie agreed, but there are technical roadblocks. When the library purchases a book it is registered to a specific machine. No swapping among devices. It may be decided after the pilot phase is completed for the library to have hundreds of selections available for each eBook, but for now, they only invested in 15 books per device, a full load.

Next, I asked if it was possible for me to purchase my own eBooks and read them on the library’s little machine. Again, no dice. The downloading process is password-protected and if they disclosed the password to allow me to purchase and download my own books I’d be getting more access to the library’s credit card than they feel comfortable giving.

The San Antonio Library is engaged in dialogue with other librarians across the country who are conducting similar trials. None have reported lost, broken or stolen books, and the feedback, so far, is positive.

The eBook is easy to use. You can operate it with the enclosed stylus or with your finger. Everything operates by touch screen and two big buttons. You select the book via the touch screen, and turn pages using the buttons. You can bookmark paragraphs, underline passages and even scribble notes using a Graffiti-like alphabet called Allegro. The battery charge lasts 20 hours (much longer than my flashlight) and recharges in a few hours. The monochrome screen is 4 .5" x 3". 

You can toggle the print size back and forth from small to large, adjust the brightness and even flip the screen around. This might seem trivial, but I found it useful. I read lying down on my side, my chin propped in one hand, the book in the other. When my arm goes to sleep I switch sides. By flipping the orientation 180 degrees, I can place the buttons convenient to my free hand. When you turn the book off, it re-opens to where you left off. There is also a find feature that lets you search for a word or phrase, and the user’s manual indicates that some books contain hyperlinks that let you jump to related information.

I passed the eBook reader around at an Alamo PC Board meeting. John Gaddis asked whether it could be used as a talking book. It can’t. There is a hole for an earphone and an icon that implies sound, but the instructions state that this is a future enhancement that will play background music rather than read the book aloud. It would be a nifty feature, though.

Three questions are begging for answers. First, did I like it? Second, is the eBook a good bet for library patrons? And finally, would I buy one for myself?

I love books – the touch, the look, the smell, the sound of rustling pages. As Erasmus observed, “When I get a little money I buy books; and if any is left I buy food and clothes.” Most electronic media leave me cold. I can’t concentrate on audio books; my mind drifts off. To quote Grouch Marx again, “ I must say that I find television very educational. The minute somebody turns it on, I go to the library and read a book.” To be honest, I didn’t expect to like the eBook at all. But I was surprised.

I read two full books: The Lion’s Game, by Nelson DeMille and The Constant Gardener, by John Le Carré. The screen page was just as engrossing as the printed page and the easy-to-use eBook didn’t interfere with the raw pleasure of the words. I usually have a few books going at the same time, and the ability to carry them around in a tidy bundle is appealing. I like to read in the bathtub. If I tried that with an eBook, both the book and I would be dead in the water. In all, though, I like the format.

The library system has drawbacks. There is a limited selection of books and, at least during this testing phase, a small inventory of devices. I see most people checking them out as a novelty or to road test the concept before investing in an eBook reader of their own. 

The cost is also a liability. Although you are not charged to borrow the reader, you will be dunned if you lose or break it. A friend of mine, a librarian at Central Library herself, told me that she was intrigued by the readers but balked at being personally responsible for more than $300 in library equipment. Others, I am sure, will feel the same. 

Like me. My book broke. Don’t ask how, but the screen cracked. My checkbook is now considerable lighter and I would think once, twice, three times before I checked one out again.

For security reasons, the library does not give you full access to the eBook’s features. The manual indicated that the book came equipped with a dictionary, but if there was one I couldn’t find it. There are additional font options – those with poor eyesight could make the type jumbo sized – but that feature is also disabled for security reasons. 

Finally, would I buy one? I don’t think so, at least yet. The book selection is limited, and actually shrinking. Three eBook publishing companies - Time-Warner’s iPublish, Random House’s e-publishing arm and Mighty Words, the company that released Stephen King’s e-novella, Riding the Bullet - went belly-up in December. I checked the availability of electronic versions of several books I wanted to read – David McCullough’s John Adams, for example – and drew a blank.

The eBooks that are compatible with the library’s RCA readers are only available from GemStar (piped in through the device’s 36.6K modem) and over the Internet from Powell’s bookstore. Powell’s carries 4,500 GemStar titles, mostly fiction. There were only 30 biographies listed, for example, many of them classics, such as Lytton Strachey’s Eminent Victorians, published in 1918 ($3.96). 

Cost is also a sticking point. Publishers seem to be experimenting to find an acceptable price point for eBooks. Current bestsellers are going for about $15.00, some as high as $20.00. Once released in paperback, the price drops. For example, David Balducci’s current hardback bestseller, Last Man Standing, is selling in hardback for $26.95, as an abridged audio tape for $29.95, as an unabridged audio tape for $49.98 and on abridged compact disk audio for $42.98. The Gemstar eBook is $11.95. The Constant Gardener, which has been released as a mass market paperback, costs $7.99 for either the paperback or eBook edition. 

Because they can’t be given away, loaned or sold, I would not get excited about buying eBooks until they cost less than a paperback. After all, the publishers are just selling pixels. They don’t have to print books, box them, ship them, shelve them, remainder them . . . I would expect those savings to be passed onto the reader. They’re not.

Another sticking point is the format. There are literally dozens of eBook formats, some for proprietary readers and some for PCs and handhelds (the Acrobat eBook reader and Microsoft Reader, for desktops, for example, and the PalmReader for the Palm handheld.) I would hesitate to make a significant hardware investment until this shakes out.

The hardware also seems to be in transition. Franklin’s eBookMan, for example, plays downloadable audio books as well as their proprietary format eBooks, and currently sells for $99. The Franklin model also had a calendar function and can play MP3 files. Other contenders are bound to enter the market soon with even more features and better prices. The library, according to Katie, did look into getting the Franklin models, but because it has such extensive calendaring functions, they didn’t feel comfortable having eBooks returned filled with patron’s personal and private information.

I loaned my eBook reader to a trusted friend, Jim Collier, who had this to report:

I, also, was surprised with the comfortable reading format of the eBook. It certainly answers the need for a light at night . . . I specifically like the idea that it is loaded with so many books, which makes an eBook as a traveling companion a wonderful idea — for reading onboard an airplane, train or in a tent at night. The hand-molded side is comfortable, and since the text can be rotated, one unit is really adaptable for both right hand and left-hand use. It would be nice if the recharge cord could handle different electrical current conditions one finds during international travel, in a way similar to that of laptops. It will, however, never replace the fun and enjoyment I get browsing through bookstores or handling a "real" book. I do not really see or hope to see an eBook as a real book replacement; think of those who collect first editions, signed first editions, or the specially crafted books with wonderful etchings.

What Jim didn’t say was that he fell asleep with the reader in his hand, whacked his wife in the face and almost broke her nose. That 18 ounces of molded plastic packs a wallop!  

ebooks are just one aspect of the changes we will see in publishing and book selling over the next several years. I applaud our library system for the methodical way that they are testing the waters and making sure that our library grows and changes with the times. The eBook program is a good one, and I encourage all of you to swamp the library with requests so that you can evaluate this new format for yourselves and give them plenty of intelligent feedback.

If you want to learn more about the library’s eBook program and view a list of all the titles installed on the devices, visit SAPL. Info on the RCA REB1100 eBook Readers, and the newer REB1200 color model, can be found at RCA  To learn about the Gemstar format books, go to Gemstar eBook or to Powell''s .

Over the next year I’ll be writing the occasional article about eBooks, including our library’s exciting Net Library program and the joys of trying to read a novel on the 2-inch square screen of my Palm handheld. I’ll also cover how to publish your own eBook.

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Alamo PC Organization, Inc.
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