BB eye: Why digital?

Published on 10 February 2017 in Editorials

by Stephen Menzie

I’ve fairly recently moved in to live with my partner. An eyebrow was raised about the number of books I brought with me. In reality, it was only about a quarter of my entire book collection but that’s enough to have turned the small spare bedroom of our London flat into something that more closely resembles a library. My partner has been particularly accommodating but the question ‘Why do you need so many books?’ was asked, in a genuinely curious way. Even in today’s internet age, so much of what is found in books and journals simply cannot be found elsewhere. I would struggle to do half of the bird stuff I do without books and journals. Except, that wasn’t really what he was asking. What he was asking was ‘Why do you need so many paper books?’

It feels like we’ve made it through something of a transitional period with music. I still remember the first single I bought with my own money. It was on CD. For a number of years, I bought CDs and ripped them to my laptop, then loaded them onto my iPod. The CDs looked good, lined up alphabetically by artist on my shelf, but, once they’d been digitalised, that was generally where they stayed, sitting there as a decoration, as a collection to be looked at but never used.

I can vividly remember the first ‘digital only’ album I downloaded – Modern Vampires of the City, by Vampire Weekend. It’s an even stronger memory than my first CD single, thanks to the mental tussle I had with myself before downloading it. Top of the worry list: would this somehow invalidate the collection of CDs I’d built up on my shelves over the past however many years? Perhaps it did; but perhaps that was no bad thing. Now, I don’t even own a CD player, not even on my laptop. I haven’t bought a physical CD since and my CD collection lives in a box in the attic. The shelf space I’ve saved gave me even more space for books…

Books and journals seem to be slightly stuck in their own transitional period. While many people – and the music industry itself – were quick to invest in MP3s, with enhanced digital albums, cloud storage, and streaming, the publishing industry largely treats electronic publications as an afterthought following the publication of a printed edition. You have only to look at some of the eBook versions of some of the recent family monographs to realise that they’re nothing more than a low-resolution electron dump of the printed pages – no enhancements, no investment, no passion; and no formatting, which, on a screen that isn’t the same dimensions as the book itself, leads to captions spilling over onto the next page and tables split in awkward places. It’s not surprising then that, given the choice between a nicely formatted, printed book and an eBook – often offered at the same price – consumers are continuing to buy the print version.

I work in the digital publishing industry, so I really should be practising what I preach; but do I? I have to admit that I still buy quite a few paper books, for the reasons mentioned above: higher quality reproduction and layout. That’s not to say I don’t want to buy digital books. With ever-decreasing shelf space and ever-increasing digital storage (I’ve just bought a wireless 3 TB disk drive that sits in the corner of my desk, no bigger in a physical dimension than a box of Matchmakers), I long for publishers to start treating digital products with the same care and passion as their paper siblings.

It’s a two-way process, though: consumers need to be committed to purchasing digital products and subscription to show publishers that the market is there. One set of publications, which have shown just how brilliant an electronic book can be when care and passion is put into its production, is the Sound Approach iBooks. They also demonstrate how enhanced content really can help the reader to take full advantage of features such as the sonograms and recordings. I would urge anyone with an iPad to explore at least the sample pages, which can be downloaded free from iTunes.

Despite the clear advantages eBooks give, there is a certain lingering sense that paper books have more worth and are somehow ‘safer’. It’s true, you can still read a book from the 1970s while you’d struggle to find a computer that will open documents from the same era, although file formats are becoming more stable and longer-lasting. And let’s be honest, a book is no more or less waterproof than an iPad. But should my iPad find its way overboard on a pelagic (or be stolen or lost), I can quickly and easily repopulate a new device with the same thousands of PDFs and eBooks downloaded from cloud storage. You couldn’t do that with a collection of paper books.

There’s another factor to the ongoing success of the printed book, and this one is harder to argue against: it’s what I call ‘the collector issue’. How many of us have bought a volume in a series that we’ll never use just to fill that missing gap in the numbers? And how often have you taken a step back simply to admire your bookshelf and all its books, carefully arranged in taxonomic order? Or bought a book simply because it has a nice cover and will look good on your bookshelf… as part of the collection? Most birders are by nature collectors, and that habit extends to our bookshelves. I certainly had an emotional connection to my book collection, just like I did to my CD collection. It took the radical step of moving away from my family home to realise that the practicality of digital copies far outweighed the emotional connection to the printed editions. I also realised that the real value in the books I owned was their content, not how they looked as part of a wider collection.

British Birds is already making strides towards producing an enhanced digital version every month. (Click here to find out more.) Recent issues have seen enhancements such as the inclusion of BBRC submission material (July: BBRC and Yellow Wagtails), additional rarity photographs in Recent reports and the BBRC’s annual rarity report, and runners-up photographs in Bird Photograph of the Year that couldn’t be included in the print version due to space restraints. Add to that hyperlinks to make following up online material even easier; auto-rotating photographs to save you having to hold your copy sideways; and images that you can zoom right into, and the benefits of the digital version start to become even more apparent. If you haven’t seen a digital addition of British Birds yet, you can add digital to your existing subscription for just £10 a year.

Digital journals open up all sorts of future possibilities – sonograms, recordings, videos – all of which BB plans to utilise in its digital pages. Readers should embrace these additions rather than be sceptical of them, and authors of potential papers should bear in mind the possibilities when gathering material together.

It’s time that the publishing world made efforts to emerge on the other side of its digital transitional period and for us all to embrace the wonderful possibilities that come with electronic publishing. To answer the question I asked earlier, ‘Do I practice what I preach?’, at the end of last year I made the decision to move my subscription of BB to digital only. Why wait until the end of the year? Well, I needed to make sure my 2016 binder was complete with the full 12-issue set before it was filed away on my bookshelf. Old collector habits die hard!

Stephen Menzie works as a Digital Producer for NatureGuides, a London-based company specialising in natural history apps and media. Outside the office, he is a keen birder and ringer with particular interests in moult, ageing and identification.