Friday, June 11, 2010

Viewing e-books on an iPad

This month, my library purchased an iPad for the staff to try out. We were contemplating initiating an iPad lending program for students, and wanted to play around with one ourselves before committing to such a large purchase. A large part of the discussion about whether or not to invest in the program was if the device would work well as an e-reader for the electronic books in our collection.

With this in mind, the Web Services Librarian, Barbara Arnett, and I decided to make a little video demonstrating how various e-books in our collection display on the iPad. (This was also inspired by conversations with iPad owners on Twitter and Facebook, who did not seem to quite believe me that PDF files did not always display well within a browser.)

The following is the video we made. It's not fancy, and by no means comprehensive, but was just the best way we could find to truly convey an actual user experience with the device. Neither of us had ever used an iPad before this one, however Barbara had taken it home for the weekend, so she had a (very) little experience with it, and I have had an iPhone for over a year now, so I am familiar with Apple's touchscreen techniques.

Our findings: For most of the e-book databases, the books displayed fairly well, but the PDFs lost most, if not all, of their functionality. As far as we could tell, you could not search within them, jump to different sections or download them. For the Knovel and ProQuest databases, the PDFs did not work at all (they just opened the first page of the document, and you not view the rest of it...)

We found that you could get around this problem by going onto a regular computer or laptop, accessing the PDF through the database there, then downloading it and adding it to the Bookman app in iTunes. You then need to sync your iPad to iTunes on the computer, and you can access the full PDF through the iPad's Bookman app. This is a somewhat cumbersome process, especially since most of our e-book databases break the book into sections, so you would have to download multiple PDFs for each book (up to 20 or 30 for an entire book.)

The iPad's native e-reader app, iBooks, has a very nice display, but I'm not sure how practical it would be to build an academic e-book collection in a propriety, device-locked format...

So there you have it. I know that there's no love lost between Apple and Adobe, but it would seem to me that if you work at an academic library that licenses most of its electronic content through databases, where that content is available mainly as PDF files, Apple is going to have to work on a better browser-based PDF reader, or it pretty much kills it's usefulness for us. (Or, on the other hand, perhaps publishers will need to change how the make e-content available...)

Either way, we will not be making any large iPad purchases at this time...