The iPad and the Historian

After months and months of hype, the long-awaited Apple tablet – the iPad – has arrived. It’s actually a real thing. Perhaps I too have just been caught up in the media spectacle that is an Apple product launch, but since I wrote a post back in November about the use of e-book readers for historical scholarship I thought I should say something about this gadget.

On the last episode of the Digital Campus podcast, the co-hosts all seemed to agree in their predictions for 2010 that mobile technologies would play an increasingly important role for historians in the classroom, in museums, and in their research. I’m inclined to agree and this new tablet computer from Apple seems to have certain advantages and disadvantages. Obviously, I’ve never actually used one of these devices, but from press reports and specs on the Apple iPad website, here are a few potential applications of this device for historians:

1.) Digital Reading

Apple is clearly marketing the iPad as a digital reading device. The most obviously competitor in this space is the Amazon Kindle. I see a few advantages for historians and students who will use the iPad as an e-reader.

  • Because the iPad supports existing iPhone/iPod Touch applications, users won’t be locked into a single e-reader system on this device. The demonstration of the new iBook application was impressive, but it seems to take a lot from applications like Stanza. As I’ve written before, I use Goodreader on my iPod Touch and that seems to be the best application for reading article-length PDFs. To be able to use this application on a larger screen would make the digital reading experience much more comfortable.
  • Again, because the iPad runs the iPhone OS, users won’t be locked into using a single e-book format. Currently, the iPhone/iPod Touch supports open PDF, ePub, .txt, .doc, and many other formats. While we can only speculate about the iBook store at this point, my guess is that these books will be loaded with restrictive DRM software, but the iPhone OS and existing e-reader applications will allow users to access open books and journal articles, free from DRM limitations.
  • The larger screen and ability to display and manipulate PDF files will be especially useful for handling scanned primary source documents. I have enormous collections of scanned documents from my own research that I would love to be able to slide around on a tablet surface as I work through all of the correspondence, minutes books, newspapers, by-laws, legal documents, photographs, reports, and other primary sources I’ve digitized over the years from archives across Canada.
  • Unlike existing e-readers out there, the iPad will have internet connectivity (Wifi & 3G). This could offer scholars an enhanced reading experience with the integration of Web content (audio, video, blogs, podcasts, etc…).

2.) Research

While the iPad is not the only portable computing device with 3G wireless internet access, its portable form factor might make it a useful tool in the archives. Not all archives provide reliable internet connections so the ability to quickly look something up online while working with physical documents in an archive could be quite handy. I know I have done just this on several occasions while working at archives with wi-fi connections (City of Vancouver Archives, City of Toronto Archives, and Library and Archives of Canada). Of course, you can do the same thing on an iPhone or with the use of a 3g usb dongle or a Novatel Mi-Fi. The only advantage to the iPad for Canadian researchers would be a more affordable data plan (if the 3G iPad comes to Canada with good data plans).

3.) Teaching

Just as laptops have become ubiquitous in the classroom, the use of tablet computers like the iPad with persistent wireless internet access may also become common. While these devices can be a distraction in the classroom, they can also be valuable tools for students and educators. I’ve tried to take advantage of the fact that my students regularly use laptops in lecture and have constant access to the university’s wi-fi network. From time to time I’ll ask students to look things up during lecture (especially when they ask questions or they want to confirm a point I’ve just made). I also direct students to Web content, including video, still-images, and audio pertaining to that particular lecture. Having the convenient web-browsing capabilities of mobile Safari on the iPad in the classroom could serve a similar function.

And, of course, all of the e-reading advantages I listed above would also apply to students. Apple did mention deals with textbook publishers to get e-book versions of textbooks onto the iPad. I’m less excited by this prospect as many textbook publishers view e-books as a way of eliminating the used book market. My hesitance about e-book textbooks is somewhat relieved by the growth of the open textbook movement.


As with any digital technology designed for a commercial rather than educational or scholarly market, the iPad has its shortcomings as a useful tool for historians.

  • No GPS. Without GPS, many of the incredible geo-spatial and augmented reality applications that can be used to overlay historical information on physical historical sites cannot be used on the iPad.
  • Closed programming environment. The closed nature of the iPhone OS and the restrictive character of the App Store model has offered consumers many thousands of applications, but no opportunities to utilize the iPhone/iPod Touch as a programming device. The iPad looks to have the same limitations so it is unlikely that it can be used to teach programming skills to history students.
  • No camera. With a high-resolution camera, the iPad would be a tremendously useful digitization tool. The ability to immediately view digitized images of archival documents on a large screen would indeed be very handy.
  • No expandable storage. Historians collect a lot of stuff. With a maximum of 64gb, the iPad may not be able to store your entire archive of digitized books, journal articles, photographs, scanned primary source documents, audio, and video files. This is not a replacement for your laptop or desktop computer.

Those are just a few observations from the perspective of a historical researcher and educator. Until the iPad is actually available in retail stores, we can’t know for sure how useful it will be for historical scholars. If Apple’s gamble on tablet computing does pay off and the iPad becomes as widely adopted as the iPod, we may begin to see them in the classroom, the library, and the archives.

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