20 E-books as an independent medium

posted on December 6 2012

This is an english version of yesterday’s blogpost.

During the last weeks I was quite intensively concerned with the topic e-books. I had several talks at different occasions. And we have a project course running in our institute, where we discuss a lot about the future of e-books. At first I was interested in e-books as a medium that can be read on tablets and e-readers – and in all the challenges concerned with formats, DRM and so on. Meanwhile the media type itself is in the focus of my interest. I think that e-books have got a great potential that is not yet realized so far. In an article on e-books as a catalyst of change processes in libraries I made some reflections about the possible impact of e-books on business processes and tasks of libraries. But it goes further. Several important current trends concerning universities and academic libraries deal somehow with e-books: the self production of digital textbooks, publishing under open access, e-books as interactive multimedia in e-learning, publishing in mobile friendly formats and more…

The new format EPUB 3 opens different doors. At the moment e-books are usually just electronic versions of a print book. As it is typical for new technologies, in the beginning the new one just imitates the old one. For this purpose the PDF format (as a postscript file) is best fitted, because it is identical with the print output of a document created on a PC. Layout, font, line and page breaks are the same as in the document that was sent to the printer. The e-book format EPUB (in version 1 and 2) undermines some of these elements: the original line and page break is lost, the layout adapts to the device on which the document is displayed – just like web pages in the browser. Compared to the printed book there are no fixed page breaks, and that makes it difficult to cite an e-book in an academic context as we used to do. Furthermore there was already the possibility to integrate video and sound into the EPUB document. This way the format moved into a new direction, away from its printed counterpart. But that was just the beginning.

The format EPUB 3 is now the starting point for the emancipation of the e-book from the printed book. Technically an e-book in format EPUB is similar to a web page. It consists of zipped packages of different data types, pages in HTML5, media files like bitmap images (i.e. in format JPEG), video or sound. It contains also vector graphics in format SVG that can integrate interactive elements. Interaction can optionally also be programmed with Javascript, another current web technology. These elements can be used to enhance e-books with interactive elements, as we already know them from the web. Questions and answers with an immediate control can be integrated into a digital textbook. Learning controls can therefore be made directly in the e-book. Graphics can be designed so that they change or show additional information by touching them on the screen. Objects in 3D can be rotated and be viewed from different directions. Multimedia content like videos or sound can be integrated into the text and be played. These are standard features of EPUB 3, which can be displayed with appropriate programs (apps) on PCs or tablets. At the moment there are only a few devices and apps, but this is going to change soon.

Technically the new format opens a lot of new possibilities. Now there is the challenge to implement these features usefully into e-books. This is the same question as it is being discussed for quite a long time in e-learning. That’s why the solutions must be searched in this field too. It’s not enough to know how to do it technically. We must develop didactical and pedagogical concepts to use these features and functionalities in a useful way in new media. And there is much experience in e-learning on this topic. Now the production of content for digital textbooks has to be combined with the publishing of research output. So different departments of a university, (like an e-learning office, multimedia services or the library) have to work closely together. The library could be responsible for the publishing process under open access. And there could be new tasks for an academic library in this context: for example support and advice for researchers to produce e-books in an open standard or providing an appropriate platform to publish these e-books in the sense of an extended document server. Developing schemes for metadata and cataloguing the e-books could be further tasks for libraries.

We are today in a very exciting period where the course for the future are made. Publishers, booksellers, universities and libraries must redefine their roles in the process of producing and publishing e-books. Those who are not ready to move on, have bad cards in this game. And I see a growing importance of cooperation between different departments within universities in order to bring together different know-how for the production and publication of interactive multimedia e-books in open standards.