Monday, May 28, 2007

Taking the Ebook Train

Bill Gates said "Reading is going to go completely online." Are you ready? Do you own an ebook reader? Have you downloaded full-text ebooks onto your computer? Probably I should work up a test to determine how ebook-savvy a person is.

I look at ebooks primarily in 2 ways:
  1. As a consumer
  2. As a librarian
Reading is not yet completely online. Ebook sales for 2006 totaled a mere $56 million--a drop in the bucket compared with print sales. Why don't more people buy them? Why not buy the latest bestseller by Tom Clancy or Janet Evanovich and read it on a Sony Portable Reader System? That product costs $350, far more than the average person thinks it's worth. Prices for competing products are similar, at the least. (The cheapest I see is the ebookwise reader costing a little over $100, but it doesn't use the new electronic ink technology like the newer, more costly ones.) Not all books are published in ebook format, and when they are, the price isn't much better than a paper copy. It's not yet part of our culture to read an electronic book for pleasure, though I think that will change one day. A thousand years from now, I can envision the demise of print books, but certainly not digital ones.

Some commentators say ebooks are a solution in search of a problem, and there is nothing wrong with paper books, but it is undeniable ebook readers have some nice advantages: the ability to store many books--just go to your menu and pick the one you want, you don't need to carry a truckload of paper books with you. And you can always download a new book into your reader with immediate access no matter where you are as long as you have an internet connection--some print books can be hard to find in a bookstore, and if you order one you'll have to wait for the mailman to arrive.

Until more readers make their way on the market with reasonable price tags, and more bestsellers are available in ebook formats much cheaper than the paper copy, it'll be awhile before a critical mass develops and we see a full-blown ebook market.

A librarian looks at ebooks in a different way. They are an opportunity to provide reference service that just wasn't possible before. Full-text repositories (mostly free copies) are being developed by Google Book Search, Microsoft Live Search Books, Amazon Search Inside The Book, Project Gutenberg, the World Public Library, the University of Michigan Digital Library Text Collections, as well as databases offered by commercial vendors: Ebrary, netLibrary, Springer, Books24x7, Gale, Safari, etc.

Why full text? A librarian can do a lot with full text:
  1. Verify a citation, chapter titles, copyright
  2. Compare different editions of the same book
  3. Find a book from just a quote
  4. Find books discussing obscure topics
  5. Find books on relatively unknown organizations, people, etc.
  6. Plagiarism check
  7. Distance reference (librarian & remote user viewing the same pages)
  8. Loan out copies of digitized rare books too fragile/expensive to leave the premises
The main problem at this moment in history, is trying to discover whether a particular book is available online in full-text. If it is, where is it? How would you find it? How can you know for sure if it's out there somewhere or not?

There are many players in the full-text ebook game--some of which I've listed above. But there are also smaller players, and let's not forget full-text books available at publisher websites as well (Random House, HarperCollins, eHarlequin, etc.).

Is there one metasearch engine that searches ALL the full-text sites--both free and fee--so you can find all the books available in ebook format and where a particular book might be? No. There isn't. I looked.

(Possible solution: WorldCat. It is the biggest book database out there with something like a billion records. It already tells you who has a print copy, and even gives URLs for some online books from netLibray and NAP. Imagine one day if WorldCat would list all the places you could get an online full-text copy: Project Gutenberg, ebrary, etc. WorldCat seems to be the logical party for this.)

But the librarian has a few options for conducting a decent search anyway. One of those options is creating a DIY ebook search engine. This can be done easily with the help of any one of the custom search engines currently available. Here are the major ones I've looked at:
  1. Google Co-Op
  2. Rollyo
  3. Yahoo Search Builder
  4. Microsoft Live Search Macros
  5. Gigablast
The one I'm most familiar with is Google Co-Op. You create a search engine by populating it with URLs for ebook repositories. You cram as many of these URLs into your search engine as you can. Then you enter your search term into the search box and your DIY search engine searches all those URLs at once, and spits out the results in a nice, neat format, just like you would get in a regular search results page.

It's easy to find dozens of these ebook sites on the internet--this is probably all ho-hum stuff for some reference librarians as you've already done this.

The advantages of this DIY search engine is that you can search numerous sites at once. The search engine isn't computer-specific--you can log on to your account on any computer with internet access and search your engine.

But not all ebook sites allow for full-text searching ( comes to mind). My original plan was to have one search engine just for full-text sites and another for everything, including those that search only author, title, etc. But I've since just put everything into one engine.

Some sites don't allow you to use them in conjunction with this DIY approach. You can't use Google Book Search, Microsoft Live Books, or Amazon Books with Google Co-Op, Rollyo, or the others. I tried, and it doesn't work. I asked Google and they verified Google Books doesn't work with Google Co-Op and probably won't anytime soon. Another problem is that some URLs don't work easily with these search engines. The URL may not be something simple and there's no easy way (that I can find) to make them work with these. The University of Michigan collections come to mind--Eighteenth Century, and Making of America Books. At least they don't work for me.

But many of the ebook sites do work with this approach so give it a try if you haven't. I would think every reference staff at every good-sized academic and public library would have already built one of these engines for their reference desk. Yours hasn't? Good heavens.

There is another way to search for full-text ebooks online, and it solves some of the problems associated with the 5 products I've listed above. But it too has its advantages and disadvantages. I'll have to write about it later. This is supposed to be a blog post, after all, and I tend to get carried away.

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