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Thinking about ebooks

The ebook juggernaut is moving along like a train with no brakes, and it's raising so many issues. I thought it would be useful to put down my thoughts on the subject, how our users and learners will need to adapt, and how libraries and schools may need to adapt as well.

I think that the issues fall into a few big buckets:

  1. What is an ebook?
  2. What are the emerging standards?
  3. What are the legal issues?
  4. What's in the pipeline?

So let's talk about ebooks.

What is an ebook?

I have always been very uncomfortable with how we talk about ebooks in the educational and library communities, and in the consumer market as well. I think that we need a better language to describe ebooks so that we can discuss them in the context of libraries and education. So what is the taxonomy of ebooks? Here are some suggestions.

The umbrella term is 'e-resources'. E-resources include a bunch of resources that libraries and educators have come to know and love - databases, websites, articles, audio and video streaming media, etc. All of these contribute to modern educational environments.

Ebooks are therefore a subset of e-resources. Of course, they're also a format of books in general, like other subtypes of books - textbooks, encyclopedias, fiction, audio books, large print, translations, Braille, etc.

It would be wise to consider ebooks in much the same way we look at other major subtypes of books, reconsider how these types came to be, and why they continue to exist. The bigger question is, 'When we make them electronic, does their major intent change for the better or worse?'

So let's consider the primary divisions of books and see how making them electronic affects them in a library, research and educational context.

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Ebook demonstration at Web 2.0 expo, San Francisco 2010
www.flickr.com/photos/16316293@N00/4586879133

Fiction versus non-fiction

Fiction is written to be read in the order that it is written. That may seem obvious, but very few other books are written this way, where the reader engages with the book from beginning to end and uses his or her own imagination to experience the book's story. Fiction comes in many genres: literary, children's, mystery, romance, graphic novels, etc - all of which can be displayed in ebook format (although there are some short-term technical limitations for some e-readers regarding colour display).

Non-fiction, on the other hand, does not always require that it be experienced in a specific order. You can, in many cases, enter the book at whatever point you like and just read the chapter or view the illustration you want. You might access the work through tables of contents or indexes. There are huge differences between fiction and non-fiction, and these differences are magnified when they become ebooks. It is one thing to read an ebook of fiction on an e-reader like Kindle. The experience remains personal and you engage with the work from beginning to end. You have access to the features you expect and need, like bookmarks. Reading the same fiction book on a desktop PC, however, can generate a very different experience for the reader.

Now, imagine a non-fiction work. How do you plan to use it? Some can, and are even intended to, be read from cover to cover, such as popular works like business bestsellers or self-help books. Others you'll find that you only desire to read the section that interests you most or that aligns with your information needs. Indeed, scholarly works are often collections of essays where the order of reading is irrelevant and a single chapter might be all the reader desires. You can easily imagine yourself using a chapter or two from a non-fiction work on a desktop or laptop PC - especially if you're printing those important sections as well. (Hmmm, printing. Printing is something e-readers do poorly or not at all. We rarely desire to print fiction for future reference, but that is usually not the case with non-fiction.)

There are some non-fiction and fiction works that straddle the line, such as biographies, autobiographies, diaries, poetry, shortstory collections, essays, etc, so there isn’t always a strong demarcation between fiction and non-fiction when it comes to ebooks. As such, professional judgement will continue to be required for ebook collection development and usage scenarios. So when we’re discussing ebooks, we need to be very clear at the forefront whether we’re talking on the same page … (pun intended) … fiction or non-fiction. There isn’t a blackand- white answer here, but the usability, usefulness and satisfaction associated with the ebook experience can be quite different on this delimiter.

Reference works

Converting most reference works into ebooks is even more confusing. These are never meant to be read through cover to cover. (I will admit, though, that I once read an entire encyclopedia set and a dictionary as a child.) I think that this is one place where building the reference work as an electronic resource shines. It doesn't replace the usefulness of the print book entirely, but it does excel on many fronts. For one, it frees the book from the compromises of page order - alphabets, taxonomies, ontologies, spelling, chronologies, indexes, etc. And that's what makes them exciting as an electronic reference, since discovery is made much simpler through search features. Again, taking these print works and making them electronic adds another level of development in adding features and functions that will assist the reader's discovery process. For example, think of this small range of reference works and how they are enhanced by being electronic:

  • Encyclopedias
  • Directories
  • Telephone books
  • Quotations
  • Encyclopedic biographies
  • Dictionaries
  • Almanacs
  • Company histories
  • Citation guides.

In most usage scenarios, each work would be more easily and effectively used on a desktop or laptop computer with printing capability.

Textbooks

Textbooks are one of the more exciting arenas for ebooks. Unfortunately, too many people just think about making a traditional textbook into an ebook and placing it on the web or an e-reader. This is a fundamental misunderstanding of what a textbook is and does. Textbooks are not simple holders of content. When well done, they are the framework for the entire pedagogy of a course, a grade, a subject or more. They tend to be built over many years and many editions by teams of experts and teachers in the subject domain, as well as editorial and publishing talent. They are normally tied to curriculum or professional standards and support, at the grade-school level, the progress of students and schools to achieve greater success on local, regional, and national standardised tests. They are designed to be taught by a teacher or professor and experienced by the learner in a scaffolded way, where one piece of knowledge, skill or competency is laid down in preparation for the learning of the next highest activity. In general, the textbook’s team of authors takes into account the variety of learning styles, target audiences, and age/stage issues in the design of the textbook.

So when we talk about etextbooks, we're rarely thinking of merely placing a current print work online or on an e-reader. To assume that this environment doesn't represent a material shift for the learners and teachers is to be naive. And if we were to not take advantage of the many opportunities to improve the learning experience and add additional elearning experiences in the shift to ebooks, then that would be another missed opportunity.

In the end, we can't find many similarities between apples, oranges, and pineapples other than noting that they are all fruit. Indeed, the variety of books becomes even clearer when we look at them through the electronic lens.

Stephen Abram, M.L.S.

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Stephen is Vice President, Strategic Partnerships and Markets for Gale, a part of Cengage Learning. He is a past president of the School Library Association, the Ontario Library Association, and the Canadian Library Association. He is the author of ALA Editions' Out Front with Stephen Abram and Stephen's Lighthouse Blog. Stephen would love to hear from you at stephen.abram@gmail.com

This article was published first by Information Today, Inc. (www.infotoday.com). Used with permission. All rights reserved.