Dispatches from the Digital Revolution
Anyone who has picked up a newspaper or magazine or read news online lately has heard a lot about the ongoing “battle” between print and digital publishing.
Recently, the New York Times reported on enhanced ebooks with added soundtracks; on December 3, I read that to fight back, print publishers are “enhancing” print books with attractive covers and better quality paper to try to catch shoppers’ eyes.
But with all the kerfuffle about shiny new ebooks and apps, we forget that ‘enhancing’ books through multimedia isn’t really that new. What started out as a curious Google search for books on CD-ROM revealed the surprisingly long history of digital books and hypertext—and some eerie similarities to “brand new” apps and ebooks.
Books on disk
In his 1992 article “Beating the Book,” Scott MacKenzie detailed the history of the CD-ROM. Optical disc technology debuted in the 70s with feature-length films, but consumers quickly lost interest in these movie discs with the advent of VHS and beta. Digital disks really caught on in the 80s when CDs appeared.
From then on, MacKenzie says, tech developers (and publishers, too) seized on CD-ROMs, focusing their efforts on developing discs as useful “products for cataloging, acquisitions, reference, indexing, business, medicine, law, government, science, geography, and, finally, education.” Books could be greatly enhanced with multimedia and hypertext.
An article published just three years ago extolled the virtues of CD-ROM storybooks in the classroom. To find out if schools were still using CD-ROMs, I called my dad, a very recently retired fifth-grade teacher. He couldn’t remember the CD-ROM encyclopedias I loved in third grade, but had great things to say about atlases, timelines, and even one CD that let kids “dissect” animals without actual blood and gore. (Although he still made them dissect real owl pellets, and craft cardboard tombstones for the skeletal voles they found within.)
The connection between CD-ROM books and education is so strong that Nancy K. Herther’s 2011 article “From CD-ROMS to Ebooks” details the best of the best in CD-ROM “edutainment,” without much attention to CD-ROMs’ alternate uses, but blurs the line between books and games (typical of many conversations about multimedia, where it gets hard to delineate boundaries between forms). She sees these CD-ROMs as laying the groundwork for successful new digital textbooks and educational apps.
However, this isn’t the whole story of books on disk.
In a jarring juxtaposition of retro technology and futuristic artistry, Kevin Lu’s 1994 article “Jack in the Text” shows floppy disks are the predecessors of our oh-so-modern ebooks. In 1994, when you said “electronic book,” most people would have thought of print adaptations, which were floppy disks containing the text from print books. These books allowed you to change fonts, highlight parts, and create indexes. Is this sounding familiar?
What’s more, the article also discusses edgy electronic novels like Jaime Levy’s 1993 Ambulance, which combined a horror story with illustrations and—wait for it—a soundtrack.
The major difference is that the books-on-disk format never caught on, in large part due to the oft-lamented difficulty of reading on a computer screen, and issues of portability. Ereaders and tablets have solved that, and the ideas pioneered in the 90s are finally ready to take off. If only more publishers would look at these “historic” examples, maybe they wouldn’t feel like they had to reinvent the wheel with enhanced ebooks. We already have great examples of how multimedia can punch up a text; the trick now is taking advantage of hypertext and the Internet to make something truly new.
Catch up with me next week to learn more about the history of hypertext. Just to warn you: you might think microfilm is revolutionary.