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University library opens up pages for electronic book research

Cavalier Daily News, (August, 2000).

Imagine curling up under the covers at midnight, totally engrossed in "The Adventures of Huck Finn." Now imagine curling up under the covers with a blinking monitor in front of your face.

Although this scenario isn't exactly true to form, it's not all that far from reality.

Here at the University, the Library's electronic text centers, in cooperation with Microsoft, are experimenting with a new program called Microsoft Reader, just released on August, which allows digitized text called an e-book, to be read off the Internet.

Electronic Text Center Director David Seaman has been working on releasing more than 1,200 e-texts for public vies-wing on desktops or laptops, but new technology is making it so that people, can actually carry their novels to class like an ordinary book.

The Pocket PC is a new device being designed to hold c-books downloaded from a desktop or laptop, are handheld devices with a monitor and a few buttons to allow people to "flip" e--hook pages. Some are equipped with a slim plastic stick so users can scribble notes in the margins of the e-book.

"Basically, it's a miniature computer,` Seaman said.

Most Pocket PCs weigh no more than a wallet, but they can cost a small fortune ---- they currently range between $200 and $600.

Pocket PCs are different from Palm Pilots currently on the market because Pocket PCs allow users access to the Microsoft Reader and the new e-books. The Palm Pilots are primarily digital planners, and while they are able to read text, they cannot use the new Microsoft Reader.

Text and book materials have been on the Internet for years, but Microsoft and Seaman are working to make it comfortable for the user to read off the monitor. Text currently on the Internet usually is viewed with readers such as Adobe Acrobat Reader that usually require people to print onto paper because of the text's grainy look and poor resolution on the computer screen.

"It's the first wave of viewing things in an environment outside of a Web-page," Seaman said. "The aim here is to read things here on the screen rather than have to print them out."

Martha Blodgett, associate University librarian for Information Technology, oversees program planning for this project as part of an overall mission to build a library of the future.

"We're trying to find out: what are the uses that enhance the educational opportunities and research experiences here?" Blodgett said.

Unlike regular paperbacks, electronic books allow students the capability to do keyword searches, which speeds up the time it would take to flip through several hundred pages for a certain passage. In addition, one Pocket PC can hold not just one, but at least 100 novels in a device weighing no more than two or three paperbacks. This not only saves space but also allows students to immediately reference texts wherever they go.

"We want to have digital libraries follow you around, and not just say, `Look on the Web' and make you sit down at a computer to go get it," Seaman said.

E-books, when downloaded onto an easily transportable Pocket PC and carried into class, allow students not just a window into one novel, but a wealth of other information too.

For example, if an English student was reading an e-book version of Hamlet, he could compare versions of the same play, not to mention any of Shakespeare's works and historical texts written during that time. Students reading a paperback Hamlet would have to lug around hundreds of books to do such cross-referencing.

Because Pocket PCs have memory capacity for over 100 books, students can access a wealth of novels without having to carry 100 physical books.

"They give students a more wellrounded understanding of the topic they are studying. If you can access all this information from different areas, it would give you a fuller knowledge, and a fuller look at the text," Blodgett said.

And none of this, Blodgett promises, will sacrifice any of the advantages of having a real .book in your hands. Students can still bookmark, "dog-ear" and even write on the e-book's virtual pages.

Blodgett added that the issue is not just of convenience and education, but also of preservation. Over the years, paper texts have been outdated and many, with yellowing pages and fading ink, are becoming fragile and illegible. With the Internet becoming more accessible, people can not only can view the transcribed text that was previously illegible; they can also access it just about anywhere. As a result, people all around the world can now read James Madison's letters, for example, without having to travel to Charlottesville to view the original text.

Seaman said that e-books are also affordable. Customers paid $2.50 to download and read Steven King's recent release Riding the Bullet which appeared exclusively in e-book format. Compared to's price of $22.40 for the hardcover version of Hearts of Atlantis, another of King's novels, this makes e-books a more attractive choice.

Even so, both Seaman and Blodgett doubt that e-books will ever be able to replace paper books completely. With only 1200 e-books available for view at the present, this is still a far cry from the over 5 million printed paper texts available within the University's libraries. Students using a-books at this point would be restricted to having a small reference library from which to search.

In addition, the team must deal with still raw and underdeveloped technology and high costs for devices and programs. The $200 to $600 range for Pocket PCs still does not compare to the prices for paperbacks -- usually under $10. So for now, the extra price for convenience may not be one that students are willing to pay just yet.

English professor John Unsworth of the Institute for Advanced Technology in the Humanities added that the e-book, as with every other technological invention, has a few bugs.

"This is new technology, so there will be a few wrinkles," Unsworth said.

Despite the new bugs and raw technology, the Electronic Text Center continues to remain positive that the future for electronic books will be bright.

"We're not throwing out print materials. We're just adding value to them with e-books," Blodgett said.

Juliana Chan.