Should eBooks Mimic Books?

Skeuomorphism is a word that describes when a digital object incorporates elements of the equivalent physical object even though it is not necessary to do so. For example the calculator on an iPhone is mimicking a physical calculator in its use of the “C” button. One advantage of skeuomorphism is that it gives users some kind of reference point when switching from a physical to a digital object.

eBooks and e-libraries frequently employ skeuomorphism. eBooks may incorporate elements of physical books such as layout, bookmarks, and page numbers, even though the page numbers may change based on the device used and the choice of font size.

One reason for having electronic products mimic their print equivalent is to make the research process easier. It allows users to research using electronic resources in the same way as they use print materials. In some legal research courses research using print products is taught first because this can be a good way of understanding why the electronic products are structured the way that they are. Another reason is practical: the less you have to do to convert a print text to an eBook, the cheaper it is to produce.

That said, when producing electronic versions of print materials, it is important to keep in mind that there are some basic physical differences with regards to research. With print materials you can have multiple texts and reporters open in front of you, making it easy to jump back and forth between resources (assuming, of course, you have them). To mimic this process with electronic resources you either need to have multiple windows open (and a large monitor) or multiple monitors, or both. Having this information in multiple tabs is not necessarily a solution, especially if an online resource is slow to load. According to “Short-Term Memory and Web Usability”:

[S]hort-term memory famously holds only about 7 chunks of information, and these fade from your brain in about 20 seconds. … Response times must be fast enough that users don’t forget what they’re in the middle of doing while waiting for the next page to load.

My personal experience is that, in the small time it takes me to move between tabs, I can easily forget what I am looking for.

On the other hand, the research process can be a great deal smoother on electronic products. Where a print product includes a reference to a different text or a judgment, an electronic product can directly link to it. Since not all materials will be on the same electronic resource, a seamless research experience will require publishers have their databases play nicely with each other. Some publishers do already link to external materials (CanLII is a popular choice). However, for publishers, linking to materials over which they have no control is a problem; content may change or vanish entirely. eBooks may also include one or more dictionaries, e.g. general, legal, or medical.

Other features of electronic resources that make life easier for the researcher relate to the end product of the research. It is far more efficient to cut and paste text into a memo or other document than having to retype it. Equally helpful is an feature that automatically includes the citation for any text pasted into a document from a database.

So assuming then that eBooks should not be slavish recreations of their physical equivalents, how should they be changed for the digital environment? User experience is obviously high on the list. While legal research, particularly more complicated questions, will never be straightforward, a well-designed interface can make the process more efficient and cost-effective.

There is also a larger question: do eBooks need to be “books” as we think of them? In legal research users rarely need to read the entire book; they are interested in specific segments, be it chapter or even a paragraph. So if a book is merely a container for information, do we still need that container? Or is the whole concept of an “eBook” simply one great skeuomorph?


  1. I think that the title of the article answers the question. If one is looking for electronic content that does more or less what the book does, i.e. encapsulate a limited or specialist range of content and references, the book, particularly annual ones, evolve naturally to ebooks. But the reason that professional publishers are years ahead of others is that their markets have sophisticated needs, for content and tools that are not limited, so that the major electronic services can take the user to places that they did not know existed. It seems to me that for so long as there are limited requirements, there is little reason for ebooks to differ greatly from books and evolve from that point. But the real excitement lies in the broader electronic use of content, tools, workflow and communication to be found elsewhere. See