Pet Book Post 4: Digitalization of Books

After seeing the presentation in Wednesday’s class about how books can be digitized and how that affects their physical appearance, I almost wished that I owned an iPad or Kindle so that I could first-hand what the discrepancies that Craig Mod points out in his piece would look like in relation to my Pet Book. By virtue of having a MacBook equipped with iBooks, however, I ventured onto Project Gutenberg’s page for The Water Babies and downloaded their EPUB version of the book (with images of course). The digital book, with its large text on stark-white virtual paper, was supposed to be looked at as a physical book with two pages open at once, but there was no separation between each page. The long column of text just went up and down the page, one paragraph spilling into another. The version that I downloaded wasn’t the same version that I’ve been studying in the Northeastern special collections, so the historiated capitals, intricate title font, and round images were gone. Instead, this version features colored imagery that I imagine would exist in its physical counterpart as well.

Besides the obvious resource of Project Gutenberg, I also ended up on the easily accessible Google Books, as well as a website called Page By Page Books. Unlike the e-book I downloaded, the Google Books version exists as simply a scanned copy of the book (the edition published in 1864) from the library of the University of Michigan. As a virtue of being on Google Books, it is searchable, which would be especially helpful when trying to find a particular passage, but otherwise simply looks like scrolling through the pages of the actual book. The website Page By Page Books, however, looks much more like the type of website you would use for simply finding a quote from the book instead of actually trying to read it. With no images, no virtual notion of turning pages, and none of the physical characteristics that makes The Water Babies the book that is it, the website just features lines and lines of text with a “Next Page” button at the bottom, as well as a navigation panel on the side to go back to the table of contents, the previous page, or two switch whole chapters. I found a similar version of just text straight across the page with almost no breaks after looking for the book on the Northeastern Library website (which coincidentally uses the text provided by Project Gutenberg’s text-only version of the book).

Additional internet sleuthing led me to the website for the Digital Public Library of America where the first search result for “the water babies” turns up, as luck would have it, the exact edition of The Water Babies that I’ve been analyzing for this project. Though this version isn’t actually from the Ginn & Company’s Collection for Children that Northestern’s edition belongs to, everything besides the scanned cover is exactly the same. This version was also, however, one of the many digitized by Google (with the animated page-flipping as an added reach for authenticity).

The notion of what it means for a book to be digitized is an interesting idea to think about because, as the above results show, there are a variety of methods for how it can be done. Some, like Google, can just scan an entire book and make it searchable. Others, like iBooks, can create e-book versions that allow viewers to ‘read’ it like a real book. Sites Page by Page Books just throw all of the text up onto their website, empty of images or original formatting, while projects like the Women Writers Project code their transcriptions in HTML to try to be as authentic to the text, while still presenting a digitized version, as possible. The problem with most digitization, however, is that there is always something missing that was included in the physical copy. Maybe it’s as simple as the feeling of holding a book, or in knowing what kind of binding it had or the quality of the paper it was printed on, or something more intricate like the imagery, footnotes, and formatting that are lost. Even when looking at the copy that is exactly the same as the one that I’ve been studying, I know that the cover is different and the bright-white of the screen contrasts with the yellowing paper of the physical so much that it simply doesn’t feel like the book that I’ve been getting to know over the past few weeks; it’s the same book, but it’s not my Pet Book.

I found Craig Mod’s discussion of how to improve e-books to be extremely compelling, especially as someone who chooses not to read e-books because of the exact problems he states. His discussion of the scanned versions of books, such as those found on Google Books, was particularly interesting to me because it is those types of scans with try to retain the most authenticity, but which end up losing the most engaging parts of the book they are showing. He explains, “many digital books are OCR scans with broken tables and sloppy page breaks, and you have to wonder just how anyone thinks they can charge a near equivalent price for an inferior reading experience. A reading experience made inferior not because of the device, but because of a lack of consideration in the presentation.’ Attempting to flip through my Pet Book on a screen, with page-flipping animations and the “metaphor” of visually showing how many pages were left ended up actually making the copy feel much less authentic than the boring and plain iBook version I looked through. I think a main struggle of book digitalization is finding that right balance of authenticity to the text while embracing the new digital presentation it has taken on.

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