Reading and Computers

By Valauskas, Edward J. | Computers in Libraries, January 1994 | Go to article overview

Reading and Computers


Valauskas, Edward J., Computers in Libraries


Information delivery finds itself at an interesting and critical juncture in its history, akin to a position some 400 years ago. As we all know, information has always depended on an audience to create a demand for its products. This axiom was true for the first printed books in the 15th century, and it is also true for electronic books, documents, papers, and data. The parallels between the early history of printing by press and printing by computer are remarkably similar. In both cases, the initial users of new technology -- printing presses or computers -- were slow to recognize the large scale appeal of information transmission by their products to a broad audience.

William Caxton, England's first publisher, concentrated his efforts on books that appealed to him and his associates in the courts of Edward IV and Richard III. Caxton translated and published romances and poetry from French for a small audience in runs of no more than 500 copies. He didn't see opportunities beyond the horizon of his small group of educated and noble friends. It was up to other entrepreneurs to see larger markets with this new technology called printing. For example, John Lettou, a Lithuanian, and William de Machlinia of Flanders, saw a market for law books in England, some seven years after Caxton's first specialized work. They started a flourishing and profitable trade thanks to the unique nature of English law for records of precedence.(1)

Other entrepreneurs recognized the need for religious tracts and textbooks. Information dissemination by printing in the course of two decades at the end of the 15th century became a medium for the masses, rather than a medium for the few select.

Digital document delivery and publishing followed a similar history. Early electronic books and documents were aimed at specialized audiences, created by authors looking for new means to distribute information of limited appeal. It has only been in the last 12 to 18 months that economically attractive electronic books and magazines have appeared, aimed at a larger, computer-literate reading public.

The Voyager Company's flourishing and successful Expanded Books are probably the best examples of these new electronic texts.(2) If this series, novels and works of general interest are made available on disk at inexpensive prices, competitive or actually less expensive than paperbacks. You can do more with an Expanded Book then you could ever do with a paperback. In an Expanded Book, there are tools to help work through the text, including a Progress Gauge, electronic Paper Clips, a Notebook, and other features -- not found in paper. There's also illustrations and sound, beyond the ripple of pages in a breeze. The software engine behind each Expanded Book and other tools, such as the Textbook Toolkit, are readily available so that anyone can take text, graphics, videos, and sound to construct an electronic book.(3)

For both the fledgling publishing industry in 15th century England, and the digital book business in 20th century America, it took pioneering work by a small band of dedicated individuals to prove the utility and vitality of a new technology. Once the technology was demonstrated to actually work, it could generate an audience willing to use it, and there was an opportunity for profits, and larger scale ventures in printing appeared. There is ample proof that we are well on our way toward using technology in a more common and less complicated way, to make information available to a larger audience by putting tools right in the readers' own hands. It is as if William Caxton distributed a printing press with every copy of first book in 1474 and 1475. Instead of printing this book for the sister of Edward IV he would have told Margaret, the Duchess of Burgundy, that he would drop off for her a press, type, paper, and his translation, all for her own construction of a real book.

But how far can we take this analogy of electronic books? …

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