The Scroll and the Codex: Two Different Views on Ebooks

Due to the rather unique collection in our library and our location, we depend pretty heavily on electronic journals and ebooks. I am dealing with a lot of problems with pdf ebooks for research at the moment, and I also read a lot of fiction (Mobipocket and an old Palm T|X at the moment) in ebook format, and I’m struck at the differences.

We are at a transition period in how we consume information, and it appears that we have simply carried forward the information access issues that existed at the turn of the last millenium.

I’m talking, of course, about the scroll and the codex.

A scroll is a single long sheet with words printed from top to bottom. A codex is a book as we would recognize one. I’m dealing with both in interfaces optimized for the scroll.

PDF ebooks have been particularly difficult to deal with. To have the text at a readable level, you have to zoom in significantly. This puts the top and bottom of the page outside of the viewing window of most modern computer screens, especially with the standard 17 inch screens at most workplaces. AJAXy interfaces like Library Press Display make even less sense on small screens. This is because our standard screens work best with an internet-pages, which imitate a scroll.

The small screen on my palm T|X suffers from the same problem, however using the Mobipocket reader converts everything into a scroll.

The scroll is fine for end-to-end reading. It has it’s own built in bookmarking feature. However, it is useless for reference purposes.

The codex is great for reference purposes. It bookmarks well, but not as good as the scroll. It’s more portable and durable than a scroll.

Why are we forcing something so revolutionary and different, viz the electronic book, into these two formats? Using PDF files, which force a codex form on a scroll, or plain text/mobipocket/EPUB files which roll out like a scroll, but suffer from a serious lack of precision in layout and destroy the benefits of the codex.

So, what’s the solution? I’m just a librarian, not a software engineer. Stick with the format that fits. Scroll-type ebooks are great for novels.Forced-codex PDF files are good for making sure that the text and pictures look good when they’re printed out (and very little else). Paper books still have a pretty good advantage over both despite the weight  and size problems. We still don’t have a format for printed words out there that takes the advantage away from the evolutionary, revolutionary, incredible paper book.


3 Responses

  1. I’m currently a Kindle junkie and an aging reader, so it allows my font size to be whatever I need it to be and it has quality clipping, highlighting and bookmarking features and now, .pdf capability, as well as word search capabilities within the work. It combines scroll features with classic codex feel.

    I also run a mostly paperless law office, so I practically live in .pdf files, which if created properly are word searchable, which I constantly use to navigate the .pdf files as if they are scrolls. Research is all digital now, a complete shift from twenty years ago.

    I love books — in all their forms, whether it be digital or paper. I disagree with your last statement a little bit though — the digital book, regardless of its form is far superior for search, indexing, research, copying, storage (I carry the complete works of Shakespeare, Tolstoy, Dickens, Dostoyevsky and 150 other books with me to the office every day in something smaller and thinner than most trade paperbacks), redundancy (multiple copies) and alternative printing styles.

    The paper book is more about art, texture and history now, rather than any previous advantage it might have had in conveying information to the masses. The book is devolving into coffee table books. Right now, the only books I buy are books that are graphically impressive because digitization of books hasn’t and probably won’t eliminate that genre of books. Yet as search capabilities improve, the difference between scroll and codex is going to disappear completely in relation to books containing mostly text and even some graphics and our paper books are going to seem as useful and relevant as the hand printed texts as those of monks in the middle ages seem to us now.

  2. I’m still going to have to stick to my guns. We have just barely seen a native 8 1/2 by 11 e-reader come out on the market, and it’s over $1000 (the Han Lin large eReader). I find 3 column text unreadable on anything but a paper printout.

    My marginalia is limited to the one book it is in, but it’s in a format that is persistent, readable by anyone who possesses that book and can be added with any pen, pencil or other writing implement.

    Proprietary technologies cannot replace a ‘Makeable’ system like a book. Until ebooks can match that, they won’t end the book.

    I can see e-books replacing the pulp novel now.

    I can see e-books replacing reference books once a cross-platform standard is adopted.

    I can’t see an ebook replacing study books where marginalia is important.

  3. You’ve forgotten all the lessons that technology has taught us in the past twenty years. When I was in law school in the late eighties, most of our research was still book based and CD-Rom’s started arriving with statutes and cases on them.

    Nowhere is the “marginalia” so important as in legal research and the traditional law library and law office is fast becoming a thing of the past. Larger screens are coming and the prices will continue to drop, just like my I-pod’s and laptops. It is already starting to happen with e-readers. Early adopters are going to pay more, that is all.

    The driving force behind the change isn’t going to be in the library, but in the marketplace. When I can have every file in my office and all the applicable research on a particular case instantaneously available to every single employee, I have a huge competitive advantage to my paper bound rivals, so big that I’ll be able to pay extra for a Han Lin (which I’m thinking strongly about).

    I prefer the print screen technology of the e-reader’s over the laptop and a tablet is easier to use in Court than a laptop.

    As far as proprietary software dictating the market, books and publishing are headed down the same road, albeit a little slower, that music has traversed. An open standard, ala .mp3, will be adopted and utilized, probably forced by either Google’s book project or Adobe’s market prevalence.

    Also, I write, clip, annotate and highlight on both my Kindle and my .pdf files — every day and my marginalia is digital and can actually be hyperlinked to other marginalia.

    I love books. I own over 3000, maybe even more, but information is much more manageable and accessible in digital format.

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