Believe it or not, one of H G Wells’ predictions has almost come true. No, not the one about aliens landing in Weybridge, but his dream of a digital library:
The time is close at hand when any student, in any part of the world, will be able to sit with his projector in his own study at his or her convenience to examine any book, any document, in an exact replica.
Thanks to various digitisation projects, we have unprecedented access to millions of texts, including some of the highly obscure ones.
Even if you’d rather read a paperback, you can still enjoy the benefits of ebooks, such as searchability, highlighting, and portability. How else could you fit a full set of Trollopes in your bag?
In this Thing, we’ll discuss the best places to find ebooks, ways to organise your digital library, and how you can create your own ebook.
You almost certainly have access to ebooks through your institutional library. Often, though, the loan periods are short and you can only download the texts to specific devices. Many public libraries now offer ebooks, too, so it might be worth investigating what’s available in your local area.
No doubt you’re already familiar with the major ebook platforms such as the Kindle Store and iBooks (soon to be rebranded Apple Books). There are many other websites that offer ebooks, most of them for free.
Project Gutenberg is the most famous example. Founded way back in 1971, Project Gutenberg is the world’s oldest digital library and holds more than 56,000 titles. The texts are scanned and cleaned by an international team of volunteer proofreaders, so the quality is generally very high. You can download the ebooks to any device and even send them straight to your Dropbox, Google Drive, or OneDrive account.
Internet Archive is much bigger, now boasting in excess of 10m documents. They’re mostly facsimiles of the originals, rather than scanned text, so are best viewed on tablet computers. Unlike Project Gutenberg, anyone can upload texts to Internet Archive. This means it includes rare editions and delightful marginalia. Some libraries have even digitised entire collections for hosting on Internet Archive. It’s a wonderful platform for both accessing and preserving texts.
For more recent scholarly texts, try the Directory of Open Access Books.
Curating Your Own Digital Library
Once you’ve gathered ebooks from a few different sources, you’ll probably want some way of organising them. Calibre, developed by Kovid Goyal, is an open-source app that’ll help you do just that. You can create a virtual library, sync ebooks with any device, edit ebooks (e.g. change the font), or convert them to another format. There are also plugins available to extend Calibre’s functionality, such as the ability to store your digital library in Dropbox so you can access it from anywhere.
Creating an ebook
If you fancy publishing your own ebook, it’s never been easier. There are lots of tools available that’ll guide you through the creating process using either an HTML or Word file. One of the best solutions is Jutoh. This well-designed app works on Windows, Mac, Linux, and Chromebooks. You can even run it on a flash drive or a Raspberry Pi. With templates, a built-in cover designer, and comprehensive help files, you have everything you need to produce a perfectly-formatted ebook. It’ll also handle footnotes, endnotes, indexes, and cross-references.
Jutoh is a bargain at just £24. There’s a demo version available if you want to give it a try first.
Ebooks haven’t taken over the world, thank goodness, yet they are starting to offer us the possibilities suggested by Wells’ prediction. You can be a booksniffer and a digital researcher.
This week’s suggested activities:
- Explore Internet Archive to find what’s available in your topic.
- Use Calibre or Evernote to manage your digital library.
- Install the demo version of Jutoh and experiment with creating your own ebook. Use a public domain text if you don’t have any of your own writing.