Poetry & E-reading

E-reading is all the rage in the LIS field right now; American Libraries Direct, the weekly online magazine supplement, contains a permanent section devoted to e-content. Public libraries are working hard to expand their e-book offerings, even loaning out e-readers. And LIS students and young professionals are expected to be familiar with the economic, legal, and technical issues surrounding e-reading. To ignore digital reading trends is to resist innovation and embrace ignorance.

Thus, while I am too financially strapped to own my own e-reading device, I have taken the time to experiment with my boyfriend’s Kindle; I’ve also read extensively on e-reading issues, from the fights over pricing that public libraries are having with publishers, to marketing strategies for e-reading resources.

However, one issue I had not considered until this week was the issue of reading poetry on e-readers. An article in the Washington Post by Lonnae O’Neal Parker, “Poetry’s tense relationship with e-readers,” really opened my eyes to a whole new aspect of e-reading: the extent to which the original printed versions of poetry can be reproduced in a digital format. Apparently many poets refuse to publish their poetry in e-book format because they insist that most publishers cannot guarantee that the poetry’s form will not be altered or disrupted when viewed on an e-reading device. While the web offers a higher level of control over format, through careful programming and coding, most e-book publishers will not guarantee such specificity in terms of line breaks, stanza breaks, punctuation, etc.

How are you going to e-publish your bacon-poetry if they can't guarantee your sizzlin' line breaks? (Image Source)
How are you going to e-publish your bacon-poetry if publishers can’t guarantee your sizzlin’ line breaks? (Image Source)

Publishers argue that publishing poems digitally is an ongoing problem/challenge that they are working on. But to truly get buy-in from writers, poets need to know that their artistic vision will be honored and that their poems will not be turned into a garbled mess.

There seem to be a few issues here: if publishers want to attract poets, and subsequently attract poetry readers, to e-editions then they need to be conscious of this problem and be willing to work with the poets and programmers extensively to find a suitable solution. Also, librarians need to be aware of poetry e-reading difficulties, so that we can help our patrons navigate e-reading more efficiently. Imagine if a patron’s first experience with the poetry of Emily Dickinson or Pablo Neruda or bell hooks was unknowingly disrupted by careless e-book programming. Hopefully publishers can figure out a way to perfectly replicate original formatting soon; in the meantime, it’s our duty to be aware of how e-reading can fall short and what we can do to assist patrons when it does.

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