Textbooks in a Digital Age: The History of Canada Online

Digital technologies are changing the way we read history. With the popularization of consumer electronic e-readers like Kindle, Sony Reader, Kobo, and (yes) iPad, many textbook publishers are trying to take advantage of this opportunity to reach digital reading audiences.

Unfortunately, the Kindle DX digital textbook pilot program at Princeton had a rocky start and further reviews haven’t been favourable. Some universities are now experimenting with Apple’s iPad as a digital reader for the classroom. Many of the complaints about these digital readers, however, tend to focus on the hardware and not the e-book software. Obviously the hardware plays a significant role in the digital reading experience, but it is on the software side where we are likely to see the most exciting innovation in the development of e-textbooks.

Northern Blue Publishing is a digital textbook publisher and e-learning company that seems to be making a genuine effort to harness the advantages of digital technologies for textbooks. Rather than simply replicating a print reading experience on screen, Northern Blue uses wiki-based publishing software to produce customizable textbook offerings for schools and libraries with print-on-demand, DVD or CD publishing options, and flexible licensing. This not only provides school boards and educators affordable textbooks but it uses the advantages of digital publishing over print publishing to produce a more customizable digital reading experience for teachers and students.

The History of Canada Online is one such project that illustrates many of the advantages of digital technologies for textbook publishing. Dr. Alastair Sweeny from Northern Blue answered a few questions about this project:

Sean Kheraj: What is The History of Canada Online project all about?

Alastair Sweeny: We are producing a line of digital textbooks as a business (and a passion).

SK: What are the origins of The History of Canada Online? How did this project start?

AS: It goes back to work we did in the late 1980s, specifically Canadisk, Canada’s first multimedia CD-ROM.  This contained a timeline of Canadian history plus a digital library and image base, all indexed.  We did it as a joint venture with Encyclopedia  Britannica, who were also selling Compton’s Multimedia CD-ROM at the time.

When Britannica flamed out, due to competition from MS Encarta, we bought out their interest, continued on our own, and when teacher and McGraw-Hill author Nick Brune approached us, we pulled together a full scale online textbook portal.

SK: Who is the main audience for HCO?

AS: Middle secondary to early college.  It could be used as supplement for a first year university survey course.  We are doing a junior version as well.  See our current line here:

SK: Can you explain how you are using the wiki technology for HCO?

AS: We use Mediawiki builds, but customize the software, page design and so on.  It is very good, robust open source software, and it automatically indexes new pages and changes, and sends changes out as RSS if people want to subscribe.

Wikitext is fairly easy to learn and our authors are soon comfortable with writing online. Students who use Wikipedia also find it very easy to use.  But under our licences, users can mix media.  The NWT government for example are creating CD’s with the chapters because some of the far north village schools don’t have Web access, but they do have computers with optical drives.

SK: Where might this work go in the future?

AS: The portals are flexible and easy to update.  We hope to get more and more teacher and student input in future. We are also producing ebook apps that will be free to subscribers.

Take a look at The History of Canada Online and let me know what you think. Is this a good model for textbook publishing? Do you know of other digital textbook projects doing similar work? Let me know in the comments section.


The iPad and the Historian

After months and months of hype, the long-awaited Apple tablet – the iPad – has arrived. It’s actually a real thing. Perhaps I too have just been caught up in the media spectacle that is an Apple product launch, but since I wrote a post back in November about the use of e-book readers for historical scholarship I thought I should say something about this gadget.

On the last episode of the Digital Campus podcast, the co-hosts all seemed to agree in their predictions for 2010 that mobile technologies would play an increasingly important role for historians in the classroom, in museums, and in their research. I’m inclined to agree and this new tablet computer from Apple seems to have certain advantages and disadvantages. Obviously, I’ve never actually used one of these devices, but from press reports and specs on the Apple iPad website, here are a few potential applications of this device for historians:

1.) Digital Reading

Apple is clearly marketing the iPad as a digital reading device. The most obviously competitor in this space is the Amazon Kindle. I see a few advantages for historians and students who will use the iPad as an e-reader.

  • Because the iPad supports existing iPhone/iPod Touch applications, users won’t be locked into a single e-reader system on this device. The demonstration of the new iBook application was impressive, but it seems to take a lot from applications like Stanza. As I’ve written before, I use Goodreader on my iPod Touch and that seems to be the best application for reading article-length PDFs. To be able to use this application on a larger screen would make the digital reading experience much more comfortable.
  • Again, because the iPad runs the iPhone OS, users won’t be locked into using a single e-book format. Currently, the iPhone/iPod Touch supports open PDF, ePub, .txt, .doc, and many other formats. While we can only speculate about the iBook store at this point, my guess is that these books will be loaded with restrictive DRM software, but the iPhone OS and existing e-reader applications will allow users to access open books and journal articles, free from DRM limitations.
  • The larger screen and ability to display and manipulate PDF files will be especially useful for handling scanned primary source documents. I have enormous collections of scanned documents from my own research that I would love to be able to slide around on a tablet surface as I work through all of the correspondence, minutes books, newspapers, by-laws, legal documents, photographs, reports, and other primary sources I’ve digitized over the years from archives across Canada.
  • Unlike existing e-readers out there, the iPad will have internet connectivity (Wifi & 3G). This could offer scholars an enhanced reading experience with the integration of Web content (audio, video, blogs, podcasts, etc…).

2.) Research

While the iPad is not the only portable computing device with 3G wireless internet access, its portable form factor might make it a useful tool in the archives. Not all archives provide reliable internet connections so the ability to quickly look something up online while working with physical documents in an archive could be quite handy. I know I have done just this on several occasions while working at archives with wi-fi connections (City of Vancouver Archives, City of Toronto Archives, and Library and Archives of Canada). Of course, you can do the same thing on an iPhone or with the use of a 3g usb dongle or a Novatel Mi-Fi. The only advantage to the iPad for Canadian researchers would be a more affordable data plan (if the 3G iPad comes to Canada with good data plans).

3.) Teaching

Just as laptops have become ubiquitous in the classroom, the use of tablet computers like the iPad with persistent wireless internet access may also become common. While these devices can be a distraction in the classroom, they can also be valuable tools for students and educators. I’ve tried to take advantage of the fact that my students regularly use laptops in lecture and have constant access to the university’s wi-fi network. From time to time I’ll ask students to look things up during lecture (especially when they ask questions or they want to confirm a point I’ve just made). I also direct students to Web content, including video, still-images, and audio pertaining to that particular lecture. Having the convenient web-browsing capabilities of mobile Safari on the iPad in the classroom could serve a similar function.

And, of course, all of the e-reading advantages I listed above would also apply to students. Apple did mention deals with textbook publishers to get e-book versions of textbooks onto the iPad. I’m less excited by this prospect as many textbook publishers view e-books as a way of eliminating the used book market. My hesitance about e-book textbooks is somewhat relieved by the growth of the open textbook movement.


As with any digital technology designed for a commercial rather than educational or scholarly market, the iPad has its shortcomings as a useful tool for historians.

  • No GPS. Without GPS, many of the incredible geo-spatial and augmented reality applications that can be used to overlay historical information on physical historical sites cannot be used on the iPad.
  • Closed programming environment. The closed nature of the iPhone OS and the restrictive character of the App Store model has offered consumers many thousands of applications, but no opportunities to utilize the iPhone/iPod Touch as a programming device. The iPad looks to have the same limitations so it is unlikely that it can be used to teach programming skills to history students.
  • No camera. With a high-resolution camera, the iPad would be a tremendously useful digitization tool. The ability to immediately view digitized images of archival documents on a large screen would indeed be very handy.
  • No expandable storage. Historians collect a lot of stuff. With a maximum of 64gb, the iPad may not be able to store your entire archive of digitized books, journal articles, photographs, scanned primary source documents, audio, and video files. This is not a replacement for your laptop or desktop computer.

Those are just a few observations from the perspective of a historical researcher and educator. Until the iPad is actually available in retail stores, we can’t know for sure how useful it will be for historical scholars. If Apple’s gamble on tablet computing does pay off and the iPad becomes as widely adopted as the iPod, we may begin to see them in the classroom, the library, and the archives.

Why Historians Shouldn’t Count on the Kindle: Digital Reading and Historical Scholarship

This is a follow up on a previous post on e-book readers and the future of reading for historical researchers.

Emerging digital reading technologies hold great potential to improve historical scholarship, but these developments should not be confused with developments in the consumer electronics industry. New electronic reading devices, including Amazon’s Kindle and Barnes & Noble’s Nook, are primarily directed toward a consumer market to drive sales of mostly works of fiction from commercial publishers. These particular devices are tied specifically to the retail interests of Amazon and Barnes & Noble. By design, they are not, as yet, well-suited for academic purposes.

This is not to say that academic historians cannot benefit from digital reading. In fact, historians already do a lot of digital reading through e-mail, websites, blogs, electronic journal articles, and e-books. Digital reading will likely occupy a greater part of historical scholarship in the future, but electronic reading devices like the Kindle and Nook do not currently serve the historian well.

Historians cut, copy, paste, and share the things they read. Books purchased through the Kindle and Nook do not support this behaviour very well. Tech-savvy readers will already know many of the issues surrounding the Kindle and Digital Rights Management (DRM) (and the now infamous 1984 incident). Both the Kindle and the Nook offer convenient 3G wireless access (courtesy of AT&T) to very inconvenient books. Amazon offers books in its own proprietary e-book format (AZW) with all the convenience of being locked to your device, courtesy of DRM. This means no sharing, no format shifting, no modifications, and absolutely no copying. E-books from Barnes & Noble offer similar DRM limitations. While the Nook has a sharing feature, this is limited to fourteen days and can only be done once. This is also dependent upon the publisher granting permission for this feature (similar to text-to-speech functionality on the Kindle). You cannot even print a single page from a Barnes & noble e-book. It is little wonder then why so many textbook publishers (excluding a few notable open access textbook publishers) are looking at the Kindle as a very attractive new content delivery system. The magic of DRM essentially eliminates the used textbook market, restricts copying, and accelerates the publication of new editions of textbooks. Getting free Kindles into the hands of undergraduate students serves this emerging electronic textbook industry very well, but does it meet the needs of students, educators, and researchers?

All of the DRM-based limitations of e-books purchased through online retailers like Amazon and Barnes & Noble seem moot for academic historians in light of the extremely limited catalog of academic texts available as e-books. As an environmental historian, I am interested in purchasing copies of books by leading scholars, such as William Cronon, Donald Worster, and J.R. McNeill. If I used a Kindle, I could only purchase copies of Cronon’s Nature’s Metropolis, Worster’s biography of John Muir A Passion for Nature, and McNeill’s Something New Under the Sun. I would not find Changes in the Land, Dust Bowl, Nature’s Economy, or The Mountains of the Mediterranean World. If I looked in the Barnes & Noble E-book store, I would find nothing. Ironically, I cannot even purchase an e-book version of Dan Cohen and Roy Rosenzweig’s Digital History: A Guide to Gathering, Preserving, and Presenting the Past on the Web (fortunately, the full text of this book is available as a free website). The problem of the limited selection of scholarly e-books obviously lies on the shoulders of publishers, but one would hope that when more university presses commit to electronic publishing, they will do so in an open manner similar to Athabasca University Press.

It would seem then, from the perspective of historians, that the 3G connectivity of the Kindle and Nook holds little value. It only offer access to a limited collection of e-books with an abundance of user limitations.

Unlike the slow growth in the electronic publication of academic monographs, scholarly journals in the humanities are quickly moving online, primarily in the form of PDF articles available through familiar systems like JSTOR, ProQuest, and EBSCOhost. Leaving aside the restrictions inherent in these systems, historians now read a lot of their journal articles as open PDF files, a style of short-form reading well-suited to digital readers. Historians seem most in need of electronic reading devices that are equipped to read a versatile set of open file formats with simple, file transfer systems.

So where do the current e-readers stand on using open formats and simple file transfer systems? The Kindle offers the most cumbersome version of PDF file transfer and reading (unless you use the Kindle DX) while the Nook seems to offer direct file transfer through USB and MicroSD and compatibility with open PDF and other e-book and text formats. The Sony Reader offers extensive compatibility with many open formats, including ePub, BBeB Book, PDF, TXT, RTF, and Microsoft Word as well as direct file transfer capabilities through USB or memory card. If you use an iPhone or iPod Touch, I would recommend downloading the Stanza and Good Reader applications. Both support a variety of open file formats (although the wi-fi file transfer systems are a bit clumsy to configure and do not work very well outside of a home network). Good Reader is particularly well-suited for reading PDF journal articles and its text recognition function allows the reader to manipulate font size without losing pagination (handy for maintaining proper citations). And, of course, you cannot beat the versatility of the most popular digital reading device, the PC or Mac.

The development of new electronic reading devices, however, seems to be a minor issue when it comes to fostering digital reading among historians. More university presses need to digitize their publications and shift the delivery of e-books away from the Amazon and Barnes & Noble DRM models. Scholarly journals need to offer a wider range of distribution options, including RSS subscriptions and multiple open formats. Furthermore, the development of e-reader software user interfaces seems to be more important than the plastic and metal cases that hold this software. Page-turning, bookmarking, text and font modifications, web-integration, and file compatibility are software-based problems that still need to be overcome. These seem to be more crucial problems for digital historians than the emerging hardware wars in the consumer electronics industry.

Digital reading holds many advantages for historians and the future of historical scholarship. If we want to expand the use of e-books, e-journals, and other forms of electronic scholarly writing, we must not allow digital scholarly publishing to fall into the limited and ultimately commercially-based boxes of the Kindle and Nook.

E-Books and the Future of Reading

As environmental historians, we do a lot of reading and writing. Readers of this blog (and many other scholars) are beginning to do more of their reading in a digital format. If we consider how much digital reading we do each day, including websites and email, it is obvious that this new medium of writing has become a significant component of academic work.

The development of mass market consumer digital reading devices, including the iPhone, Kindle, and Nook will have implications for how scholars read and write. The Digital Campus podcast has been covering this subject a lot lately and CNET’s Reporters’ Roundtable recently discussed the growth of digital reading. Have a listen to find out more about the strengths and limitations of these digital technologies for knowledge mobilization.

Reporters’ Roundtable 8: Future of the book

Digital Campus Episode 46: Theremin Dreams