Letter Re: E-readers: My Personal Alexandria, Now Less Flammable!

I was excited to hear of someone else besides myself using an eReader as a repository for info, which would be handy after TEOTWAWKI. I had arrived at the same conclusions just a couple weeks ago and bought one myself. I’m very happy with my decision.

I’d like to shine a light on a few of both the advantages and caveats of of using these devices for this purpose that weren’t covered in the original post. I should mention that I am not connected with any eReader company. The only dog I have in this fight is as a consumer who is just trying to find the best product for my own somewhat eccentric needs.

First of all, in my mind, I have wrestled with this very problem since the mid-1970s. I was a prepper then, and I recognized how valuable the printed word could be in either a short- or long-term crisis. As much as I wanted to lay up an archive of texts that would be useful in an emergency, there were a number of things that stood firmly in my way.

Even being a pathological archivist, I could not overcome the fact that I just couldn’t scrape together the cash for all but a few of the books I wanted to put aside. After moving to the subtropics, I also became aware that the climate I was living in greatly shortened the service life of conventional books.

Finally, with the Internet, I now have access to most of the titles I couldn’t afford, but because of the sheer number of books I have in digital form it is not realistic to print them out. I was also somewhat put off by the ironic fact that in an emergency I would need electricity AND a computer to peruse their information, so I would actually have less or no access to them when I needed them the very most.

For a while I toyed with the idea of building an ultra low-powered computer, just for viewing these kind of files in a grid down situation. This could be done from off shelf parts like the Raspberry PI coupled with an eInk screen instead of an LCD monitor. This is very doable by someone, just not me. Though I’ve built many computers, the eInk screens have not been available to the DIY computer crowd long enough for me to get it all together and build one. The big advantage of an eInk screen is low powered operation and the fact that once it puts up a screen full of information, it requires no more electricity to continue displaying it for up to a week. The down side of eInk displays is the slow refresh rate, but that would not be an issue for reading files in an emergency. Having searched around on this topic for a few years and observed the interest and progress already made in that short time, I am confident that a few ultra low-powered post-apocalyptic computers will be cobbled together soon and how-to articles may appear in as little as two years.

My thinking on all of this changed when a friend of mine gave me an old Barnes & Noble Nook eReader a few months back. It wasn’t long before the archiver in me took over and I was experimenting with creating and loading my own files onto the Nook. While I love the Nook, it was a painful experience.

The Nook will not recognize or display TXT or HTML files, which pretty much put it out of the running for disaster related information files. I was able to create PDF files that worked on the Nook, but I find PDFs to be very limiting for my needs.

My experiences with the Nook DID convince me that there was a possibility that some eReader or other may be appropriate for a large archive of emergency information. After a week of research on different brands of eReaders, I decided that the Kobo line would hold the most utility for me.

While no currently available eReader could be described as a totally “open platform”, the Kobos give far more freedom to the end user and thus many more options to the dyed in the wool archiver.

The Kobos support an almost incredible variety of file formats when compared to ALL other comers:

  • Books: EPUB, EPUB3, PDF, and MOBI
  • Documents: PDF (and perhaps DOC, too)
  • Images: JPEG, GIF, PNG, BMP, and TIFF
  • Text: TXT, HTML, and RTF
  • Comic Books: CBZ and CBR

While some of these formats are DRM encumbered and of no use to me, I can see where having them in place would be nice if you needed them. Having a very basic HTML capability has been very handy already. Even if you can only use a half dozen HTML tags, you may reformat any web pages for the Kobos that you might want to use as a reference at some later date. Even crude HTML compatibility is a very powerful tool for the archiver.

Many (but not all) of the 18th and 19th century technology books I’ve found in digital formats are confined to PDF. I find PDFs cumbersome, but the Kobos make PDFs a bit easier to navigate by including a landscape viewing mode and a built-in image viewer. It’s much better than nothing in situations where I just have to view a title in that format.

The Kobos win on file formats.

Another issue for archivers is on board storage. Some eReaders have internal flash memory storage but lack a micro SD slot. Also, with some very popular eReaders, there is a trend where newer models of their readers have no micro SD slot in spite of the fact that their previous models were equipped with them. That is a total deal killer for my purposes.

As an example, my Kobo Aura comes with 4 GB of internal flash memory for storage, and it will also recognize up to a 32GB (!) micro SD card. 36 GB of flash translates into enough storage for roughly 30,000 books. It also allows me the option of growing the archive on a scale of magnitude by simply buying more 32 GB high speed micro SD cards. (Amazon has 32 GB class 10 micro SD cards at $18 each.)

Another small point here is that, if anything happens to my reader, I’ll still have the files intact on the micro SD cards, so I could plug them into a spare reader or at least have an outside shot at accessing them with a charged up laptop.

So Kobo does very well on storage flexibility, too.

I initially decided on the Kobo Aura H2O, but when I had the money in my hand I couldn’t find one. Then I had the same problem with the Kobo Aura HD. I finally settled on the Kobo Aura, and I am very happy with it.

I totally recommend getting a case for your eReader right from the get go. EInk screens are more complex and fragile than cell phone or tablet screens, and they really need protection to get the most out of their service lives. Clean the screen with a microfiber lens cleaning cloth at least once a week. Wash your hands before reading. Don’t use alcohol or other chemicals to clean the screen. Don’t eat fried chicken while you use your eReader. 🙂

For the long term, I’m looking for an Otterbox– an actual watertight box of the type Otterbox became famous for as opposed to an Otterbox phone or tablet cover. I want one sized to fit my reader, in its case, with enough room for a microfiber cleaning cloth and a desiccant. Aside from the box giving more protection to the screen, the desiccant will constantly be reversing the effects of subtropical humidity whenever it’s put away.

I know that this system I have described is not perfect or fool proof, but it is WAY better than nothing. After 40 years of wrestling with these emergency archive issues, I feel good enough about this to proceed. It’s far more versatile than anything I’ve had before, and with any luck it should hold me until something better comes along. – B.