Recently there has been an explosion of advances in the ebook arena. New tools, new standards and formats, and new platforms seem to be coming out every day. The rush to get books into an “e” format is on, but does it make a real difference? The “e” versions of books offer little in the way of improvement over the print version of the same book. Sure, these new formats provide a certain increase in accessibility over print by running on devices that are lighter than print books and allow for things like increasing font size, but there is little else. It is, after all, just a matter of reading the same text on some sort of screen instead of paper.
Marketers will tell you that the Kindle, Nook, iPad, and various software readers are the future of the book, an evolutionary, if not revolutionary, step in reading and learning. But that does not ring true. These platforms are really just another form for print. So now beside hard cover and paperback, you can get the same content on any number of electronic platforms. Is that so revolutionary? Things like highlighting and note taking are just replications of the analog versions. Like their analog counterparts, notes and highlights on these platforms are typically locked to the hardware or software reader, no better than the highlights and margin notes of print books. These are just closed platforms, “e” or print, just silos of information.
Unlocking the potential of a book that is locked to a specific platform requires moving the book to an open platform with no real limits like the web. On the web the the book is suddenly expansive. Anything that you can do on the web, you can do with a book. As an author, reader, student, teacher, scholar; anything is possible with a book that is on the open web. The potential for linking, including external material, use of media, note taking, editing, markup, remixing are opened without the bounds of a specific reader platform. A book as a website provides the potential for unlimited customization that will work across any hardware platform.
Turning a book into a website is not all that difficult. The EPUB standard is widely used for ebooks and is essentially a website in a box. EPUB files are basically ZIP files, a zipped collection of XML and HTML files. Typically the XML describes the book and its contents and the HTML holds the content of the book. Unzipping and EPUB file provides a predictable set of files and folders that can be processed into a static website. Once that website is created, the entire realm of possibilities of the web are available.
Law professors could start with an eLangdell casebook, expanding the EPUB version into a website then use a straightforward set of tools to edit that website. They could rearrange the text, add or remove cases or commentary, include a syllabus, link to additional materials like journal articles or websites, and more. Then they could save the website as an EPUB file that can be distributed to students replacing the costly and limited traditional casebook.
Let’s say you are a law student. Your professor assigns an eLangdell casebook, which means you could download a free, Creative Commons licensed EPUB version of the book, possibly customized just for your class. You could use that book on any number of devices or software programs. Any notes or highlights would be locked to that device or software program. Imagine if you could take the copy of the book, which you own, and expand it into a website. With some simple editing tools you could edit the book. Then you would be free to rearrange sections to match your syllabus, add notes, highlight text, add your class notes, link to recorded lectures, link to important cases, or share your work with classmates. You could even print it all out. When you are done, you would save your personal copy of the book as an EPUB file. Since EPUB format is a container it would make sense to use it to store both the plain content of a book and the personalized version of a book that you own. Because it is on the web, you could access it from any web browser on any device that you happen to be using.
The future of the book is the open web, not some platform silo. Only putting books on the web will unlock the potential of books and it is easy enough to do.
Images, by Eric Molinsky, are taken from CALI Lessons. They are available under a Creative Commons through CALI’s Flickr page.
I think that you have a good idea, Elmer, but there are a few requirements that I would add in:
1. The book from the website must be downloadable to a device so that it can be accessed even when you do not have an internet connection (you said something about this, but I want to highlight it since there are some publishers who are going with the online access only).
2. It should be able to be downloaded in multiple formats, not just ePub (perhaps Calibre needs to be turned into a web app).
3. A professor should be able to distribute a locked copy of a text if for no other reason than that they can still say “please turn to page 134” and everyone gets the same information. This copy should still allow highlighting and notes, just not rearranging the content.
4. New editions should be published as separate titles or at least be able to “turn back” your book to a specific date. While automatic updating is a great convenience now, you may need to access historical text. For instance, if a case deals with a law that existed 5 years ago but has been changed since then, you need access to the statutory text from 5 years ago. With casebooks, this lets us see not only the evolution of the law, but also the evolution of legal thinking about that law.
It will be interesting to see how casebooks evolve in the next decade.
Thanks for the comments Jenny. I have a few thoughts about your additional requirements.
1. The availability of an offline version of the book is essential. Not providing a way to use the book offline is just short sighted. We are not always online, and we don’t always have access to Internet.
2. Right now on elangdell.cali.org we provide books in multiple formats so that students and faculty can use them as they see fit. Most eLangdell books are available in EPUB, .mobi for the Kindle, PDF, and as Word documents. Calibre on Linux has a command line interface that can be used to create a web service for converting books between formats and such a service would be a great thing for libraries to provide to their patrons.
3. I have some serious opinions about reliance on page numbers that really belong in a whole other post. Just let me say that the flowable text of the web doesn’t really support page numbers. We need a different way of specifying text on the web that isn’t tied to a paper artifact and teachers need to learn to use something other than “page 134” to direct students.
4. We have already baked some basic revision control into eLangdell. Take a look at http://elangdell.cali.org/node/3/revisions to see how it works right now. Version control that tracks revisions to books is going to be an absolute necessity to provide proper continuity for teachers and students. The good news is that version control technology has been used in the tech sector for years, so the technology is mature and will be straightforward to adopt into a “book as website” scheme.
I think it is going to be interesting to see how casebooks evolve over the next 18 to 24 months.
Textbooks should be available in multiple formats, because everyone has different needs, and learns differently. I have never been a “death of the book” guy. I believe print is valuable, if only for the constancy of the data inside.
That said, if I were a law student today, I would want my textbooks on an eBook format. I would use an iPad, most likely, and have a cover with the iPad mounted on the left, and a yellow legal pad on the right. I write faster than I type, and taking notes as I read is easier without enabling a keyboard, but by putting pen to paper, without my eyes leaving the text.
I find I have better retention when I write notes out – either from reading, or in class. I double that retention, when I later retype my handwritten notes into a word processor.
I never did outlines in law school, and was never a study group guy. It was me, pen and paper, and retyping that got me through.
The eBook format I envision above, though, would have been a big help to my posture. Lugging around law books only benefited the chiropractic community.
Thanks for the comments, Brian.
I’m sure that print will be with us for years to come. Printed books are a proven archival format with pretty good accessibility. If you think about we’re talking about replacing that one print book with a half dozen electronic formats (at least in the short to mid terms) that don’t really have a lot of advantages over the print. And that’s the part that bothers me. If you’re going to re-invent something, you should really be prepared to tear it apart and make it better. Copying print to a an electronic file doesn’t really do that.