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 They have not been altered in content, so please keep in mind some of this content will be out of date.
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 preservation. 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. __________________________________________________________________ LINK LIST California Digital Library www.cdlib.org Cocoon xml.apache.org/cocoon eScholarship escholarship.cdlib.org Gemstar eBook www.gemstarebook.com National Academy Press (NAP) www.nap.edu NAP Open Book www.nap.edu/info/site.html netLibrary www.netlibrary.com Project Gutenberg www.gutenberg.org UC Press E-editions escholarship.cdlib.org/ucpressbooks.html University of Virginia Electronic Text Center etext.lib.virginia.edu