Web Magazine for Information Professionals

Mining the Archive: eBooks

Martin White looks through the Ariadne archive to track the development of ebooks.

My definition of being rich is being able to buy a book without looking at the price. I have long since lost count of the number of books in my house. The reality is that if I did carry out a stock-take I might be seriously concerned about both the total number and the last known time I can remember reading a particular book. Nevertheless I have few greater pleasures than being asked a question and knowing in which of our two lofts one or more books will be found with the answer. On many occasions I have found a definitive answer much more quickly than using Google. To me it is not just the information (and more importantly knowledge and wisdom) contained within the covers of a book but the act of sitting down, opening it up and starting to read it, often beginning at a page deep inside, without the need to look at the list of contents or the index.

Over the last year my iPad has transformed my approach to personal information management and after some years with feature phones my new Nokia Lumia phone provides a wonderfully clear image of a pdf or Office document. However, either using the iPad as an ebook reader or purchasing a Kindle or similar device has not been a priority. I will admit to planning ahead for holidays by hiding slim but challenging (to understand) books away until the time comes to back our bags. The time may now be approaching when I take the plunge and invest in an ebook reader for travel purposes, having seen the convenience of the devices on many a crowded train or in airport departure lounges.

photo (28KB) : Apple iPad wifi: courtesy http://www.apple.com/

Apple iPad wifi: from http://www.apple.com/

On the day that I am writing this column, the Publishers Association helpfully released book sales data for 2012 [1] which showed that total retail ebook sales have continued to rise in 2012, by 134%, reaching £216 million. Total digital sales have risen by 66%, reaching £411 million. These digital formats (encompassing ebooks, audiobooks downloads and online subscriptions) accounted for 12% of the total invoiced value of book sales in 2012, with this share rising from 8% in 2011, and from 5% in 2010. There is still life left in physical books but clearly ebooks are now an established feature of the commute, the beach and probably bed-time reading.

In this issue I am looking back just at the articles that have appeared since 2001. I was somewhat surprised by how few there are (excluding conference reports and book reviews) but the quality of the writing and erudition is very high indeed.

2000 – 2005 Trials and Tribulations

The first article to be published on ebooks appeared in the January 2001 issue and had the wonderful title of “It's the End of the World As We Know It (and I Feel Fine), Or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the E-Book” [2].  It was written by Sarah Ormes, who at the time was working for UKOLN. This is a superb place to start an ebook journey as the author manages to raise all the issues in a single article, with a special reference to how libraries are going to manage ebook collections.  It is worth remembering that the Kindle, frequently regarded as the prototypical ebook reader, was not launched until 2007, so Sarah Ormes’ experience with early ebook technology (the Gemstar Rocket) is of considerable interest.

eboni: Electronic Books ON-screen Interface

eboni: Electronic Books ON-screen Interface

It was recognised early on in the development of ebooks that usability was going to be a very important issue in gaining widespread adoption because people read more slowly from a computer screen than from a printed page. The EBONI (Electronic Books ON-screen Interface) project was set up in 2000 at the University of Strathclyde with funding from the Jisc Learning and Teaching Programme to investigate with the aim of producing a set of best practice guidelines for publishing electronic textbooks on the Web which reflected the usability requirements of students and academics throughout the UK. These have been somewhat overtaken by technology but nevertheless set a baseline for ebook usability at a very early stage. The project came to a close in 2002 but the project Web site is still accessible [3]. The value of this project is more in the evaluation methodology than perhaps in the guidelines themselves and this methodology is set out with clarity in the Ariadne article [4] written by Ruth Wilson.

The pace of development was quite spectacular around this time and in the October 2001 issue Ruth Wilson (now at the University of Aberdeen) evaluated some of the early portable ebook readers that had been available in the USA for a couple of years but were only just arriving in the UK. The article [5] begins with a very useful condensed history of ebook technology, in which the author reminds us that the concept dates back to Alan Kay and the Dynabook in 1996. Do treat yourself to a read of a masterly paper by Kay [6] on a personal computer for all children which dates from 1972. There really is nothing new in the world!

The interest in ebooks in the 2000-2004 period is indicated well by the rate at which Ariadne published articles on the topic. In January 2002 Brian Kelly wrote about mobile ebook readers [7] without any reference to Ruth Wilson’s paper published in the previous issue! The arrival of the first ebook standard, the OpenEBooks standard, is highlighted, though this was eventually to be overtaken in 2007 by the EPUB standard. The conclusions to Brian’s article are worth stating:

“We have seen how different communities may have very different views of the role of the e-Book within an educational context. There is a need for a clear definition of the term. Of equal importance is the need for the various communities with an interest in the broad area of e-Books to establish dialogue. Finally there is a need for organisations wishing to publish e-Book resources to have a publishing strategy which supports the reuse of resources.”

At the time of the publication of Brian Kelly’s contribution, OCLC acquired netLibrary, a major electronic books (e-books) company. OCLC's acquisition included the e-book Division of netLibrary, which OCLC integrated as a division of OCLC, and netLibrary's MetaText eTextbook Division, which become a for-profit subsidiary of OCLC. An article by Shirley Hyatt and Lynn Silipigni Connaway [8] described the rationale and background of the acquisition, the overall vision of the information environment that was being pursued, and the benefits that libraries would experience as a result. I will readily acknowledge the importance of this initiative though the article reads like a long PR statement and does not place the acquisition into a wider context. Almost every paragraph begins with ‘netLibrary’. Nevertheless it is of value to understand the vision that OCLC had for ebooks at the time of the acquisition.

Reading these early papers what came across to me was that the emphasis (and partly this is due to the Ariadne readership) was on the provision of textbooks and other educational material, and the idea that ebooks would become a mass consumer market was still some way off.

By late 2003 the benefits and challenges of ebook provision were increasingly widely recognised and the state of play was elegantly summed up in a seminal article [9] by Penny Garrod (UKOLN). She wrote that:

“The audience for ebooks in public libraries is much harder to quantify and usage is not guaranteed. Marketing is therefore vital, as people will not use ebook collections if they do not know they exist or if they cannot see the purpose of them. Ebooks should be linked to, and integrated with, existing collections rather than simply bolted on if usage is to be maximised and costs justified.”

In my view those three sentences of wisdom took some time to sink in and be appreciated. To be fair, ebook technology was still in its infancy and the reference to Personal Digital Assistant (PDA) devices is a good indication of how slow the progress had been since 2000.

2006 – 2010 New Beginnings

It is perhaps indicative of the slow rate of technology development and the small size of the market that Ariadne took a sabbatical from the ebook scene and did not return with a major article until 2006. The wait was worthwhile as Brian Whalley [10] wrote a masterpiece of an article entitled “e-Books for the Future: Here but Hiding?” I will admit to skimming through the papers that I’ve mentioned so far in this column but I took time out to read through this quasi-polemic several times, enjoying it more on each occasion. In just 4,000 words the author sums up the state of play just before the arrival of the Kindle, and raises many issues about the future for ebooks and the role they might play when integrated with other learning applications.

Man With Kindle Close Up by Tina Phillips

Man With Kindle Close Up.
Image courtesy of Tina Phillips / FreeDigitalPhotos.net

Ariadne did not return to ebooks for another four years, during which time Amazon in particular decided that the future was with ebooks and threw money at the technical and marketing problems in quite amazing quantities. The early commitment by Sony to ebooks is also worthy of notice because it probably hastened the arrival of Kindle. In 2010 Emma Tomkin of UKOLN makes up for lost time with a comprehensive review of developments post-Kindle in “eBooks: Tipping or Vanishing Point?” [11] The title somewhat mirrors the earlier contribution by Brian Whalley in considering whether ebook technology was about to become a mass market. Emma writes:

“The present resurgence in interest is fuelled by devices such as: the Sony Reader, launched – this time in the United States - in 2006; Amazon's original wireless Kindle, launched in 2007; the descendants of these devices, and the various other e-Ink devices currently on the market. The following part of this article discusses hardware, ebook device types, and other considerations such as cost and platform integration. In this article, a few general-purpose devices are also discussed – specifically, the iPod and Apple's new iPad. This is due to the fact that, in the US, the iPad's marketing places it within the range of devices used as an ebook reader.”

This paper not only documents the pace of change between 2006 and 2010 but with the benefit of hindsight helps to show just how far ebooks had come in the previous three years. Emma Tonkin was not so sure about the potential of the iPad as an ebook reader, but Brian Whalley was convinced of its value in the future - just one issue of Ariadne later he produced a very detailed review of iPad technology [12] and what the potential of the device represented for the education market:

“Despite what might seem to be a high price, I think its advantages give it an edge over the competition. I might also argue that it has no competition.”

Spot on!


I too am now an ebook author [13]. Since publication in late November 2012, around 65% of the sales have been as an ebook and, from the comments I have received, it is more about the speed of delivery than the usability of the format that has driven the ebook sales. As an author it is very easy for me to update the book as frequently as I feel is appropriate though I have decided to do so on an annual basis.

When I began work on this contribution I had no idea that ebooks dated back over a decade. It could be that they would not have reached the current market penetration without the intervention of Sony and Amazon and the adoption of the EPUB standard. OCLC also played an important role. The next stage of development is going to be interesting as the functionality of ebook readers seems to be increasing to the point where ebook readers and tablet devices become indistinguishable. We need Brian Whalley to dig out his crystal ball again, but until he does so Nancy Herther is a good alternate source of vision and insight [14].


  1. “Publishing Industry Continues to Grow with Sales of Consumer ebooks rising by 134%”, The Publishers Association, news release, 1 May 2013
  2. Sarah Ormes. "It's the End of the World As We Know It (and I Feel Fine), Or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the E-Book". January 2001, Ariadne Issue 26 http://www.ariadne.ac.uk/issue26/e-book/
  3. Electronic Books ON-screen Interface (EBONI) http://ebooks.strath.ac.uk/eboni/
  4. Ruth Wilson. “E-Books for Students: EBONI”. March 2001, Ariadne Issue 27  
  5. Ruth Wilson. “Evolution of Portable Electronic Books”. October 2001, Ariadne Issue 29
  6. Alan C. Kay. A Personal Computer for Children of All Ages http://www.mprove.de/diplom/gui/kay72.html
  7. Brian Kelly. “Web Focus: Mobile E-Book Readers”. January 2002, Ariadne Issue 30
  8. Shirley Hyatt and Lynn Silipigni Connaway. “Utilizing E-books to Enhance Digital Library Offerings”. October 2002,  Ariadne Issue 33 http://www.ariadne.ac.uk/issue33/netlibrary
  9. Penny Garrod.  “Ebooks in UK Libraries: Where Are We Now?” October 2003, Ariadne Issue 37 http://www.ariadne.ac.uk/issue37/garrod
  10. Brian Whalley. "e-Books for the Future: Here but Hiding?". October 2006, Ariadne Issue 49 http://www.ariadne.ac.uk/issue49/whalley/
  11. Emma Tonkin. "eBooks: Tipping or Vanishing Point?". January 2010, Ariadne Issue 62
  12. Brian Whalley. "Product Review: The IPad and the Educator, First Impressions". April 2010, Ariadne Issue 63 http://www.ariadne.ac.uk/issue63/whalley-rvw-2/
  13. Martin White. Enterprise Search. O’Reilly Media 2013 http://shop.oreilly.com/product/0636920025689.do
  14. Nancy Herter. Ebook Trends 2013 – The Transformation Accelerates

Author Details

Martin White
Managing Director
Intranet Focus Ltd
12 Allcard Close
RH12 5AJ

Email: martin.white@intranetfocus.com
Web site: http://www.intranetfocus.com

Martin White has been tracking developments in technology since the late 1970s, initially in electronic publishing in the days of videotext and laser discs. He has been a Visiting Professor at the iSchool, University of Sheffield, since 2002 and is Chair of the eScience Advisory Group of the Royal Society of Chemistry.