[Prev Page] [Next Page ] [Contents]

The impact of electronic publishing on library services and resources in the UK

2.4 Electronic books

This section is intended to cover hand-held or "palmtop" devices, but the term "electronic books" is often used more loosely to describe machine-readable consumer products designed to be played on a PC, television set, or other desk-top device. The tendency is already to go well beyond the simple text-based product, into the realms of multi-media and interactive leisure and learning. According to the findings of the preliminary study [EPS Report, 1992], there are six groups of electronic products that might provide the platform for electronic reference books over the next five years. These cover portable personal computers, with lap-top computers shrinking to notebook and then pocketable versions; electronic personal organisers; products designed to operate without a keyboard and using a stylus to write directly upon the screen; small entertainment systems based upon compact disc storage technology; hand-held electronic reference products, such as spell checkers and dictionaries; and intelligent portable CD-ROM readers.

The first on the scene were chip-based devices, evolving from pocket calculators, dictionaries and spell-checkers. Their power has increased dramatically, with improved ROM chip capacity and compression algorithms, so that the Bible (5 Mb compressed on to a 1 Mb chip in 1988) is now outdistanced by a multilingual dictionary and phrase-book with voice output (200 Mb compressed on to a 16 Mb chip). Early models were devices playing only one built-in text, but "generic" readers, into which one can plug various cards with different materials, are now becoming available.

The advantages of these devices are that they are very portable, have fast access, and are robust, having no moving parts other than a CD-ROM drive. They are, however, restricted mainly to text, although voice output is available. Even the newer LCD screens with backlighting leave something to be desired for continuous reading, and show only a few lines at a time.

One can foresee the next development as being the provision of erasable cards, on to which text can be downloaded, perhaps from a "hole-in-the-wall" ATM-like device. Whether libraries could, or should, house such devices and materials is open to debate.

Portable CD-ROM players seem set to capture a large market. The Sony product in this area, marketed as the "Electronic Book", offers full multimedia on 8 cm discs, which while smaller than the standard 12 cm CD-ROM, will be playable not only on the portable Sony Discman, but also on the new generation of desktop CD drives. Advantages are that it has high capacity, is cheap to produce in large quantity, is a standard and by now a familiar platform, and with multimedia, opens up a vast educational and games market. Retrieval is relatively slow, and each title requires a large production team, more like film than book production. Other formats include PhotoCD, designed for illustrated books.

Libraries could stock and lend discs, although suppliers might price this option rather high, and video hire outlets, mail order firms and electrical goods retailers are likely to move into this market much more quickly. Security would be a problem for libraries, as both discs and players, being highly portable, are easily stolen. Indeed, this is likely to be true for most miniaturised computer-based applications, and libraries might be well advised to stay with information services based on immovable computing facilities.

The eventual market leaders, or survivors, in electronic book formats are not predictable. However, reading devices for external use are unlikely to be provided by libraries; rather, the information stores are likely to be held by libraries and supplied to users on request. The same considerations will apply to the storage devices as are appropriate to CD-ROM discs.

[Prev Page] [Next Page ] [Contents]

[UKOLN Home Page] [Papers and Reports] [British Library Papers and Reports ]