30th January 2012: On Digital Books & Digitisation

Roy Christopher recently mentioned digital books and digitisation. From my email reply:


At home, I have three bookcases that take up a large room at the back of our house. I’ve run out of book-space — in part because I built up collections from doing different postgraduate degrees over the past 8 years. So, I’m going through my collection and honing it down, and buying what I can on Amazon Kindle to save space.


In an email this week to Yale historian John Lewis Gaddis, I mentioned how in 2001, I went through the archives of La Trobe University’s Borchardt library, looking at Soviet journals on the Cold War’s genesis. LTU recently got rid of an entire floor of print magazines and journals — in order to have more space for computers and collaborative group meetings. This material is unlikely to be in databases. So, an entire legacy of print history has gone. This means that today’s students won’t have the library experience of searching through old print archives and discovering material through serendipity.


Several years ago, I discovered that RMIT University’s Swanston St library was planning to get rid of its 21C Magazine print collection. As you know, I had written for them: the print editions are now collector’s items. I requested contact, to buy the collection. Instead, RMIT just got rid of it.


Digital publishing is currently inconsistent regarding new books and back-lists. For instance, I can get University of Texas at Austin historian Jeremi Suri’s Power and Protest (2003) on Amazon Kindle. I also have his 2001 PhD that the book is based on — thesis title ‘Convergent Responses to Disorder: Cultural Revolution and Détente among the Great Powers during the 1960s’ (PDF) — because Monash University subscribes to the expensive Proquest Dissertations database [my employer Victoria University does not subscribe]. I can’t get Suri’s Henry Kissinger and the American Century (2007) or Liberty’s Surest Guardian (2011) on Amazon Kindle. I can get The Cold War (2006) and Strategies of Containment (2005, revised edition) by Suri’s PhD supervisor, John Lewis Gaddis, on Amazon Kindle, but not We Now Know (1997) – a book large and dense enough that the Amazon Kindle version would need page references for academic citation. I bought the print edition of Gaddis’s George F. Kennan: An American Life (2011) because I need the print version to write reviews for Australian political science journals. I got the Amazon Kindle version of Richard K. Betts’ new book American Force (2011), which didn’t have citable page numbers, so I then bought the print edition. This wasn’t a problem with Adobe’s Digital Edition — a ‘failed’ e-book format — as it had PDF pages of the book’s print edition. In Amazon Kindle’s case, the design factors for e-book usability were more important than retaining the print edition’s feature