Monday, February 8, 2010

Is the Rare Book World Ready For a Fully Interactive Catalog on CD?

Early last year I received a rare book catalog on a CD. I thought: This is it, someone has finally taken full advantage of the technical and design possibilities, broken with the past and stepped into the future.

Alas, it was the dealer’s print catalog mounted as a PDF. PDF files are monstrously heavy to send via email attachment and can take time to download. Hence, its snail-mail delivery on disk.

Last week, one our colleagues in the trade, Chris Lowenstein of Book Hunter’s Holiday, issued her first print catalog. It is a handsome, lovingly produced and designed work, and everyone who knows Chris is thrilled that finally, after what seems like forever, it has been brought into the world. It’s a beautiful baby.

The print catalog is mounted on Americana Exchange as a link to a demo page for software developer eMagCreator. In Americana Exchange's newsletter this month Bruce McKinney has written a feature article, A Page From the Future, discussing electronic catalogs.The latest technology converts a PDF into a “realistic” book presentation using eMagCreator which, essentially, attempts to mimic the experience of reading a physical catalog, i.e. using the cursor to digitally “turn” pages in a book-like manner rather than simply click to the following page. Flash animation is featured.

Rather than a flash, I spent what seemed like minutes trying to turn a single page, an experience I’ve endured with a few online magazines. The software is too cursor-responsive, and to smoothly turn the page requires care; too often the page gets hung-up mid-turn or the cursor moves slightly this way or that, taking the page with it. The experience is like trying to mentally work through every muscle movement while walking and being so careful and slow to accomplish the physical task that you wind up mucking it up by over thinking it. It is an extremely unnatural way to turn a page, and annoying.

You are enabled, should the impulse to throw your computer against a wall loom, to click to the next or previous page. But whether "turning" the page or clicking, it's clunky. And if you want to flip the pages fast forward or backward as you would with a print iteration, you're out of luck. There are reasons why Apple has not integrated Flash into the iPad; Flash animation technology has limitations and is considered unpolished. At this point and as far into the future as we can see, Flash graphics will always seems like early "flicker" silent movies: The pictures moved but at only seventeen frames per second (the standard then; now 24 frame per second), the movement hiccups.

Then, too, there is the issue of print size. To have pages oppose, as in standard print, means that the print is so small that it is unreadable unless you zoom in for detail. A lot of zooming in and out is necessary.

It's a lot of work, and though mimicking the traditional print-read experience completely loses it. Imagine James Stewart impersonating James Cagney. It still sounds like James Stewart - but a bad James Stewart mouthing Cagney's words and that's all.

The essential challenge of digitally capturing the experience of reading a physical book is that the two media are fundamentally incompatible. The result tries to shoe-horn the magazine/book reading experience into a format that it really doesn’t fit into at all.

This appears to be the state of the art and the direction of choice. There is some fear, I suspect, that if a digital catalog does not resemble in format and reading experience a traditional print catalog that lovers and readers of such will be turned off. The idea is to gently ease readers along from tradition without rocking their world.

But it is a mistake, I believe, because it shorts the print catalog as well as its digital possibilities. I also believe that it shorts the rare book lover who wants a pleasant, intuitive, deeply informative, and effortless - accent on that - experience. It’s time to forget trying to replicate the print reading experience and find a new paradigm.

Throw the standard catalog/book model out the window and start fresh with the question: How can digital technology best serve the presentation of information and imagery to optimize the catalog reading experience?

Tomorrow: Part Two.

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