Page numbers are good. And don’t condescend to your librarian.

September 20, 2010

Hi everyone. Life is, as usual, nearly out of control. I have a couple pending posts which I’m looking forward to posting soon, but today I have to work on a policy paper about Net Neutrality, which (though I am currently at work) I should be working on now. But instead I would like to take this moment to blog about something that just happened that is (a.) relevant and (b.) annoying.

A student just came in looking for books. He was annoyed because his professor had assigned readings based on page numbers, but his iPad e-reader (on which he has the books) does not have page numbers. Therefore, he needs to look at a paper copy of the book so that he can figure out what he needs to read.

He was nice enough to me at first, as I am not his professor at which his anger was directed, but he was clearly annoyed at the backwardness of old people assigning him “dead tree books” and making him go out of his way to figure out what to read when he has the superior form of technology in hand already.

“Your e-reader doesn’t have page numbers?” I said. This was news to me. (No doubt to the professor, too.)

“It’s because of the way the information flows. Page numbers are superfluous,” he said.

“Is there a way to tell people what to read without them, then?”

I have been smiling and friendly through this whole encounter, and asked out of curiosity. But instead of answering this question, he informs me (in an “I’m doing you the favor of talking down to you” tone of voice), “If you understood the design of the technology, you would see why page numbers are useless.”

Okay, but you still don’t know what to read for your assignment.

I understand that physical paper is not necessary anymore, and I get how they are superfluous in one sense in that there are no pieces of paper. But some kind of numbering system (like verses in the Bible if you don’t want numbered pages) is still critical for breaking your information into chunks, as — evidently — you don’t know which chunks of information to read without them.

I’d love it if some other people would answer the question this student didn’t answer. How DO you find sections of a book on an e-reader? Do all of them lack page numbers? Is there some other way of dividing information that would work better on an e-reader? I really find it hard to believe that all e-readers are like this. It’d be great to hear from people with experience with different kinds of them. I’ve played with Kindles a little bit before; am I correct in recalling that those do have “page” numbers? Why doesn’t an iPad?

“Page” numbers seem like a good choice to me, at least for the next couple decades during which paper books will still be widely used. If all you have is a flow of information without any markers or signposts, that’s not going to be very useful.

As this student himself discovered.

But instead he felt it necessary to lecture the librarian on how she didn’t understand technology and why it makes more sense for the technology not to be encumbered with page numbers.

Last I heard, the book was supposed to work for the reader, not the reader for the book. This isn’t a question of understanding technology. It’s a question of understanding usability. Don’t assume your librarian is just a dead-tree-hugger when all she wants is for you to be able to find the chunks of information you need, and your computer is the one that’s not making it easy for you to find those chunks.


3 Responses to “Page numbers are good. And don’t condescend to your librarian.”

  1. So in ebooks instead of page numbers there are things called ‘locations.’ I have never quite figured out what a location correlates to (lines of xml? Amount of space data takes up?) but the reason they’re there instead of page numbers is because of the variable font size you can have with an e-reader, which cause more or less text to be displayed (see the difference between a paperback edition of a book and a large print edition). However, not having page numbers is no excuse for the student who came to you since e-readers have built in search functions! So all they had to do was ask the professor what chapter/section the reading started on or ask for the first & last sentence of the reading and they would have been all set.

    This is not even bringing up the fact that if it is a pdf that you are reading on your e-reader then it will still have the page numbers since they’re part of the pdf.

    So yeah, apparently your student didn’t want to work hard. And boo for people that feel the need to explain things to you that you already know! You know how I feel about that. :)

  2. …you’d think most assignments would be given to students including sections or chapters to read, as opposed to random page selections. (Or at least, I’d think that.) And you certainly can find those by searching in an e-reader.

    I wonder what you (and he, and others) would think of this: More book like! It follows the format we’re used to! But is that a good thing, a way to keep things consistent between formats, or is it limiting because you *don’t* need things like page numbers for an e-book, and as e-book technology improves, they’ll be laid out less and less like a traditional book anyway? Hmmmmm.

  3. Kate — thanks for letting me play with your Kindle and demonstrating that to me in person. Locations do seem like a response to that kid’s problem. However, we still do have a problem now that is akin to different editions of a paper text. Is there not some way to standardize “locations” between paper and digital versions? Then it’s up to the student which version she wants to use. Real information empowerment!

    Becky — Actually, one good thing to assigning pages (that is, sections of a chapter) is that it means the assignment is shorter…! (I can just imagine my profs saying, “Oh, well, the main part is just this one section, but it’s easier to assign the whole chapter, so hey, read it all!” I say this while eyeing a one-inch-thick stack of paper that all needs to be read in the next 24 hours…. -_-) That said, I do think the professor could do something to assign the reading in a way that makes it accessible to both formats. The e-reader has to meet them half-way in doing so (as does the first wave of students encountering this problem, who might do better to just tell their professor that they can’t figure out what to read rather than badmouthing them to librarians…heh.)

    And oooh, thanks for the link. I am going to bring this up in my History of the Book class this week! To be honest, the two-page thing doesn’t do that much for me. I know I like paper books partly for sentimental reasons, but there are other things I do think are neat about digital readers…and I think each form should do what it does best without trying to mimic non-performance-based things about the other. That is, taking notes on paper was easier, so e-readers rightfully tried to duplicate that. But what does the two-page format add?

    I’d rather they try to duplicate “pages” themselves, as chunks of information that correspond to “locations.”

    These are my initial thoughts; no doubt I’ll be thinking about this more later, though!

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