JOSEPH ADDISON, the English playwright and poet once said: Reading is to the mind, what exercise is to the body. Pity then, that for students in institutions of higher learning across the country. It takes as much exercise to carry these tomes that educate them! But then, this is the 21st century, a far cry from the days of Gutenberg. Surely e-books hold the answer to this conundrum? However, implementing e-books and digital libraries at your institution isnt just a matter of tacking an extra e onto a book. We spoke to leading publishers, technologists, users and institutions who have walked down the digital path to look at the important considerations, and choices you need to make.
E-books have had a long journey to acceptability, starting in the early 70s as a digital library of public domain books known as Project Gutenberg. These were mostly restricted to specialty domains and closed interest groups in their earliest avatars. Its really the 1990s and the explosion of the internet that made the humble e-books, along with their poster child format PDF, enter the mainstream. Today we see them in one form or the other, be it a product manual or the latest best-seller and, in our context, in some of the nations top institutions digital libraries.
For most educational institutions, the technology underpinnings for creating and consuming e-books is similar and falls under three areas, as A.M. Thimmiya, Senior Vice President, Distributed Learning, Manipal Education, explains. To begin with, you clearly need technology to create or author content, which can range from a simple word processor to graphically-rich authoring tools, based on what is being taught and the nature of the learner. The content will then need to be stored in a repository and tagged with multi-dimensional metadata, to ensure it is searchable and available to the right audience. And finally, you need a delivery mechanisman online learning management system, or digital libraries with network dependency, or offline mechanisms like CD-ROMs and portable storage media.
Atul Chitnis, one of Indias best-known technologists, adds his perspective to the process. Having followed the market for years now, Chitnis highlights that people consider e-books as new technology miracle that requires a new way of thinking. Quite to the contrary, he adds, what has changed is only the medium the books are printed on. So, at its most basic, according to Chitnis, all you need is an author, a word processor and one of many ways to save to an e-book format typically in ePub format (for just about any e-book reader device or application, including the Apple iPad), or in the MobiPocket format (used for the Amazon Kindle). He cautions educational institutions against viewing e-books as merely distributing documents in PDF format, which is essentially a print-file format meant solely for accurate print reproduction. While PDF allows for highly complex formatting, documents in this format can usually be viewed correctly only on a PC screen. As institutions are looking to encourage consumption, Chitnis recommends decision-makers to not make their e-books PC-centric. Instead, he asks them to choose formats like ePub, which adapt themselves for display on many devices dedicated e-book readers, or general purpose devices such as mobile phones, PDAs or tablets like the iPad.