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.


What the Copyright Modernization Act Means for Historians

Last week the federal government tabled its long anticipated copyright reform legislation for first reading in the House of Commons. The Copyright Modernization Act or Bill C-32 attempts to overhaul many of the out-dated provisions of Canada’s copyright law that have fallen far behind major technological changes of the last thirty years. For instance, under the proposed legislation, it would now be legal for Canadians to rip a CD to an iPod. Unfortunately, as we give a sarcastic slow-clap for this long overdue “reform” to legalize what has been common (and soon to be obsolete) consumer behaviour for nearly a generation, the canonization of digital locks overrides all of the new fair dealing rights in the bill. And this may be a huge problem for history researchers and educators.

The summary statement for the proposed legislation ambitiously states that one of the eight major reforms will be to “allow educators and students to make greater use of copyright material.” It delivers on this point in some very positive ways, particularly in section 29: “Fair dealing for the purpose of research, private study, education, parody or satire does not infringe copyright.” Educators are specifically protected under section 29.4(1) which stipulates that “It is not an infringement of copyright for an educational institution or a person acting under its authority for the purposes of education or training on its premises to reproduce a work, or do any other necessary act, in order to display it.” There are even provisions to protect the use of copyright-protected content for online distance education. However, the online instructor must “destroy any fixation of the lesson within 30 days after the day on which the students who are enrolled in the course to which the lesson relates have received their final course evaluations.”

Researchers, librarians, and archivists can breathe a little easier whenever they operate a photocopier or digital camera thanks to a number of amendments in Bill C-32. Libraries and archives may now make copies of copyright-protected materials for researchers “to be used solely for research or private study and that any use of the copy for a purpose other than research or private study may require the authorization of the copyright owner of the work in question.” This seems obvious and should have been part of a more flexible definition of fair dealing, but for history researchers it is welcomed (if a compromise).

All of these new rights and provisions for educators and researchers, of course, are undone by a single line in the proposed legislation regarding technological protection measures and rights management information under section 41 of the bill: “No person shall circumvent a technological protection measure.” If any of the material needed for research, study, or teaching is protected by a so-called digital lock, it is illegal to copy that material. Like the US Digital Millennium Copyright Act, Canada’s Copyright Modernization Act obliterates all of the liberal reforms that Canadians asked for during last summer’s copyright consultations. At best, this is a careless oversight on the part of the responsible ministers. But with the government’s recent defence of section 41, it seems clear that this is not the case. At worst, this is simply deception to serve the interests of a powerful copyright lobby, representing major media publishing corporations.

As Dr. Michael Geist argues, this is fixable. The supremacy of digital locks or technological protection measures must be removed from this bill if it is to be of any use to history researchers and educators. To read more about this topic and have your voice heard, visit Speak Out on Copyright.

To read a PDF copy of Bill C-32, click here.

A Quick Look at Copyright: Mini-Documentary

Cory Doctorow recently posted a link to a great short documentary called “When Copyright Goes Bad”. It explores, in brief, some of the implications of modern copyright law for consumers, artists, and educators. I thought this served as a pretty good resource for explaining some of the current debates surrounding copyright reform. It also touches of many of the challenges for educators.

Reaching a Popular Audience Workshop: Wrap-Up

Last week, we hosted a writing workshop for history and geography graduate students at the University of British Columbia called “Reaching a Popular Audience” sponsored by the Network in Canadian History & Environment and The History Education Network. The intent of the workshop was to introduce graduate students to some core skills for writing newspaper op-ed articles and magazine queries. We brought in an excellent group of students from Western Canada, including students from BC, Alberta, and Saskatchewan.

Tina Loo, Laura Madokoro, and Mary Lynn Young came in to sit on a Q&A panel about their own experiences as writers and editors for magazines and newspapers. Tina writes a bi-monthly column for Canada’s History (formerly The Beaver), Laura is an occasional op-ed contributor to Globe & Mail, and Mary Lynn is the director of UBC’s journalism school as well as a former newspaper reporter and editor. This session was especially useful for our discussion of some of the bigger issues surrounding academia and popular publishing as well as some really important “nuts and bolts” issues about newspaper and magazine writing.

As I mentioned in my previous post, I led an afternoon session on academic blogging. I wanted to thank everyone who sent me comments in advance of the session (thanks Shane!). Hopefully I laid out a convincing case for the place of academic blogging for history and geography scholars. I know I convinced some of the participants to start up new blogs and further develop existing blogs. Here are links to a couple of the participants’ blogs:

Can Enviro Rock?

Merle Massie, A Place in History

We hope that some of the participants will eventually publish an op-ed or magazine article in the future. At the very least, we started an excellent conversation about scholarly communication and the ways in which academics can mobilize their research to reach new audiences and perhaps serve a broader public interest.

Canadian Historians Should Sign the Public Domain Manifesto

"Captive Tomes" by traceyp3031

Historians know that our work is entirely dependent on access to and availability of sources, especially archival primary sources. Anyone who has spent months (and sometimes years) awaiting approval of a Freedom of Information Act request in Canada knows how frustrating limited access can be. It is a barrier to the free and open exchange of knowledge of our collective past. The global trend toward more restrictive copyright law stands as one of the greatest threats to our access to resources necessary for historical scholarship. As such, the public domain — our shared knowledge, culture, and resources that can be used free of copyright restriction — plays a critical role in our work as historians and we should uphold it.

The Canadian Historical Association’s recommendations to the 2009 Canadian Copyright Consultations made an excellent case for the significance of the public domain to historical research and drew particular attention to the troubling problem of perpetual Crown copyright authority over unpublished materials. This and other barriers threaten to limit the scope of the public domain and the ability of researchers to access historical resources.

COMMUNIA, the European Thematic Network on the Digital Public Domain, recently produced The Public Domain Manifesto, an omnibus statement on the importance of the public domain for cultural production and community knowledge. The Manifesto includes several recommendations and reforms to protect and enhance the public domain. Regarding these recommendations, COMMUNIA specifically cited its “particular relevance to education, cultural heritage and scientific research.” That includes Canadian and environmental historians.

I hope that historians will read The Public Domain Manifesto and sign their name to its principles and recommendations.

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.

Library and Archives of Canada Survey

Library & Archives of Canada

If you’re a historical researcher, the Library and Archives of Canada wants to hear from you. LAC recently released a survey on the relationship between historians and the archives that focuses particularly on the digitization of archival materials.

Unfortunately, it seems that LAC is under pressure to use digitization as a means of budget restraint through the reduction of services. Last November, Jean Smith wrote about this exact problem at the Public Record Office in London. Canadian researchers now face the same challenge.

I filled in my survey and tried to underline the argument that digitization should not be used as a substitution for archival services. In fact, I believe that digitization should be used to expand and grow the archives. Digitization not only opens access to historical primary source documents to an enormous global community of researchers, but it also holds the potential to enhance research with digital technologies (data mining, digital textual analysis, geo-referencing). If LAC cuts its services as it digitizes its collection, not only will a great opportunity be lost, but Canada’s historical heritage will accumulate as much digital dust on the web as it does in boxes in  Ottawa.

I would encourage all historical researchers who use the archives in Ottawa to take a moment to fill out the survey and send it along to Terry Cook (tcook3957@rogers.com)


1. How would you describe the current relationship in 2010 between
LAC and the Canadian historical research community?

2. On a scale of 1 to 10, what number would you assign to rank the
current relationship, with 10 being an excellent relationship and 1 being a
poor relationship?
1 ______________________________________________ 10
What is the rationale for your choice?

3. How can LAC best serve your needs? If there were one thing that
LAC could work on for you, what would it be?

4. Given the mandate of Library and Archives Canada (see text
appended at end of this message), what do you see as the main elements of
its roles and responsibilities and which of these are most important to your
organization or institution, and/or to you personally?

5. In the context described above of a changing digital environment
and fewer resources, how do you see these roles changing? If dynamic,
comprehensive, and sustainable programs for digital archiving are to be
implemented at LAC, and, in partnership with LAC, at other archival
institutions in Canada, what current LAC programs could be scaled back or

6. Where do you see opportunities for partnerships between
individual historians and historical associations working in collaboration
with LAC, especially in a digital environment and within a possible national
documentation framework, but not limited to these? Are there opportunities
for innovation, enhancement, and new directions that you would like to
pursue, working with LAC?

7. LAC now provides a range of services and infrastructure for the
benefit of various information communities and professions, and for
Canadians in general. What are your priorities in this regard? How can LAC
resolve the dilemma, in a time of shrinking resources, of providing
ever-expanding online access to its finding aids and resource metadata, and
to millions added annually of online digital images of actual archival
records (with all the costs and infrastructure behind-the-screen preparing
both finding aids and records for exporting to the web environment) and of
providing traditional face-to-face specialist services in the reference
rooms in Ottawa? In this transition, what is in danger of being lost and
how may that be compensated for in an online service world?

8. How do you get your information about Library and Archives
Canada? How could the flow of information about LAC be improved? Is there
a particular point of entry that you would prefer to access or learn about
such information? What kind of information about LAC policies, activities,
internal research, staff activities, and new acquisitions/holdings
development is most relevant to your needs?

9. Are there any other comments you would like to make on any aspect
of the current and future relationship of LAC and Canadian historical

10. Again, on a scale of 1 to 10, what number would you assign to your
perception of how welcome LAC would be about working in collaboration with
historical researchers in addressing the archival challenges of the digital
age and in accessing the historical archival record, with 10 being very
welcome and 1 being very unwelcome?
1 ______________________________________________ 10
What is the rationale for your choice?