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 a screen of some sort 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 used.
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, possible 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.