:: Digital Libraries Columns


Library Journal "Digital Libraries" Columns 1997-2007, Roy Tennant

Please note: these columns are an archive of my Library Journal column from 1997-2007. They have not been altered in content, so please keep in mind some of this content will be out of date. :: Digital Libraries Columns

The Other E-Books


   When People refer to e-books, they typically mean device-dependent
   e-books such as those marketed by Gemstar. These are also what most
   people probably think of when hearing the term "e-book"--a device that
   is similar in size and shape to a hardback book but is in fact a
   special purpose computer. If not, then they usually mean those marketed
   by netLibrary or others that deliver e-books for a fee on the Internet
   to standard web browsers. The term infrequently seems to encompass
   efforts by libraries, universities, or others to publish e-books on the
   net for free.

   That's too bad, since these efforts are significant and likely to last
   longer than those of commercial companies using unproven economic
   models. In particular, I believe that device-dependent e-books (what
   the Coalition for Networked Information's Clifford Lynch has called
   e-book reading "appliances") are particularly vulnerable to common
   sense (see "Bringing Out the Dead (Technologies," LJ 10/15/00).
   Niche needs

   Device-dependent e-books are likely to be important for niche audiences
   such as students who must lug around 50 pounds of print books, but they
   are unlikely to take the world by storm. When Gemstar discovers that
   hardly anyone wants to spend $400 for a device that will only allow
   them to read e-books--and only Gemstar-formatted e-books at that--then
   the company likely will retreat to publishing TV Guide and leave the
   e-book market to those with deeper pockets or better intentions.

   Meanwhile, universities, libraries, and other not-for-profit publishers
   will still be around, publishing e-books in open, nonproprietary
   formats in ways that promote and enhance preservation and access.
   National Academy Press

   The National Academy Press (NAP) has been putting the complete text of
   books online for free for years. NAP is somewhat famous for doing so
   and for stating that it has actually increased sales of the hard-copy
   versions, despite the fears of commercial publishers. As an early
   adopter of web publication, NAP forged its own path to web production
   by creating a software infrastructure called "Open Book" (not to be
   confused with the Open e-Book markup standard). As a not-for-profit
   publisher, NAP intends to make much of its in-house-developed software
   available free as open source.

   NAP's Open Book infrastructure provides a full-featured environment for
   using the books on the web. The book is displayed as one graphic image
   at a time, but the robust user interface provides just about any
   desired option. Browsing options include forward and back navigation, a
   jump to the table of contents, and selection of a particular page or
   chapter. The user can search one chapter, one book, or the entire
   corpus from any page display. If the image is too small, one can click
   a button to provide a larger version. Clicking the print button will
   fetch that page as an Adobe Acrobat file for printing, rather than the
   page image that is the default display.
   eScholarship and UC Press

   Using a very different publication model, eScholarship (an initiative
   of the California Digital Library) and the University of California
   Press republished over 50 titles for free on the web in July 2001.
   These books saw 30,000 web hits in the first four weeks of their
   release. By making these books available for free on the web, the press
   hopes to spur additional print sales by attracting customers who were
   previously ignorant of the existence of the titles. It is still too
   early to tell if this will prove true.

   The books are all marked up in XML (see "XML: The Digital Library
   Hammer," LJ 3/15/01) to provide an open, nonproprietary storage format.
   Each book is stored as one file of the full text as well as any
   associated graphic images. When the user requests a title without
   specifying a particular chapter, special software (the Cocoon
   Publishing Framework) extracts the table of contents from the file and
   translates it into HTML and a browser style sheet (Cascading Style
   Sheet) that any web browser can understand. When a particular chapter
   is selected, that chapter is extracted from the XML-encoded book and
   displayed in a similar fashion.

   Since the book is translated on the fly before being presented to the
   user, various interesting possibilities arise. For example, a
   large-print version can be easily offered simply by creating a
   different CSS style sheet. To go even further, users can specify their
   own style sheet that defines such display characteristics as font size,
   style, and color and background color. This choice, as well as options
   to search or buy the book, is available from either the table of
   contents or individual chapters.

   By being stored in a standard way that is both human-readable and
   easily interpreted by software, these books are much more likely to be
   migrated into whatever future formats are required for long-term
   Back at the ranch

   Despite what happens to the e-book market in general, there will be a
   growing legacy of free online content that libraries can make available
   to their clientele. At least for the forseeable future, books will be
   published online in various ways and with varying user interfaces. This
   means that should a library want to publish content online, there will
   be examples of how to do it as well as tools and software that have
   proven track records in handling these kinds of publications.

   But let's not kid ourselves--online books are meant to be used online.
   Printing entire copies of online books is neither cost-effective nor
   particularly pleasing. A bound volume is much more useful than a pile
   of unbound pages printed on one side. So at least for a while, online
   books of any stripe will be used online, and "offline" books (or
   "p-books" for print books) will continue to be used offline. The
   projects noted above as well as others such as the University of
   Virginia's Electronic Text Center are built on the assumption that the
   books will be used online and only parts will be printed or copied for
   insertion into papers. The advantage of such online books comes via the
   options that are not possible with print books--automated searching,
   linkages to additional content, and alternative displays for particular
   needs (e.g., large print).

   It's also worth noting that one of the most robust storage formats for
   text is plain ASCII text. It can't be made to look very pretty, as more
   enriched formats like XML can support, but it is nonetheless unlikely
   to ever become unreadable. And as far as free, plain-text e-books are
   concerned, Project Gutenberg has virtually cornered the market.

   So, the next time you hear the term "e-book," remember that the term
   encompasses many more options than those typically highlighted by the
   popular press. Projects like those cited may not make it into stories
   about e-books and the latest e-book appliances, but they are e-books
   nonetheless and likely will outlast their flashier cousins.


   California Digital Library






   Gemstar eBook


   National Academy Press (NAP)


   NAP Open Book




   Project Gutenberg


   UC Press E-editions


   University of Virginia Electronic Text Center