Monday, January 31, 2005

E-books in China & North America: Notes from LAS talk by Dr. Anthony Ferguson

Some notes that I took at a recent talk, organised by the Library Association of Singapore, by Dr Anthony Ferguson, (Head) Librarian of Hong Kong University Libraries. Tony was in Singapore for about 5 days, of which I had the pleasure of showing him around places like our HDB heartland, makan (i.e. eat) at a Hawker Centre, the Night Safari (Singapore Zoo), and a whirlwind tour at a few public libraries like Library@Orchard, Library@esplanade and Jurong Regional Library.

Any inaccuracies posted here are entirely my own. The notes were taken during the talk, and done so selectively. Posting them here is just a way of sharing, and hopefully soliciting more comments and conversations on this topic. Be advised that I'm not an authority on ebooks. :)

It's generally recognised that the adoption rate for ebooks has been much more successful in China than in North America. The North American ebook sales model was initially based on sales to individuals. That didn't work (mostly because of the existence of free alternatives like libraries). The business model then switched to libraries as primary customers of ebooks. Some ebook players in North America:
  • Questia
  • Netlibrary
  • Mightywords (note: URL is no longer accessible)
  • Borders (online books), which partnered with, while Borders stuck mainly to print
(I was thinking that geographical size should not be a factor, since both countries are huge. So what was the difference?) In both countries, they faced about the same major ebook challenges: Copyright issues, publishing standards, issue of subscription Vs. ownership.

There are 3 major e-book players in China (i.e. subscribed by the top 10 academic libraries in China):
  • Apabi ebooks (spun-off from BeiDa - Beijing University. Here's the English write-up from HKU Libraries)
  • Super Star Digital Library
  • Scholar (shu sheng zhi jia)
Smaller e-book projects include:
  • "Collectanea", i.e. "Passages selected from various authors, usually for purposes of instruction; miscellany; anthology" (definition from
  • Non-commercial digitisation projects, like those of major libraries (National Library of China, I think) and university libraries. Tony also mentioned a project called the "Million Book Project" (several universities in China are in this collaboration with Carnegie Mellon Libraries. Here's a FAQ)
The success factors in China include:
  • A booming economy, hence good funding for ebook projects and proliferation
  • China libraries wanting to grow faster & bigger (i.e. playing catchup from the loss from the cultural revolution)
  • Chinese citizens embracing web technologies - they read on the web rather than handhelds, whereas in North America, ebooks are associated with the use of Handhelds, whose sales is slowing down by the way).
  • People in China seems to be much more passionate about reading than people in North America. Tony felt that the mainland Chinese were "radically different" with regards to book consumption (of course as China gets more developed, with more quality entertainment and alternatives, it could be a matter of time that people shift away from books towards TV etc... which reminds me of this recent blogpost)
  • Copyright is "not as big an issue" in China, meaning, the people are "less squeamish about potential copyright infringements" -- whereas in the US, people may become fanatical about copyright issues that things don't move as fast.
  • It's possible that publishers in China are making money from ebooks
  • License agreements for ebooks are less of an issue, and often cheaper than subscriptions for English ebooks.
Tony also commented a bit about the Google digitisation project (hey, which librarian isn't nowadays?). Technically, it's feasible because he's seen an automated scanning machine at Stanford. However, Tony suggests that the Google project isn't going to make libraries obsolete, because up to 80% of libraries' circulation comes from new books rather than old ones. What the google project means is to make more free books on the web than in any one individual library. Then individual libraries could focus on acquiring contemporary books and on user education, instead of say, preservation and archival issues.

As for the future development of ebooks in China, funding would be the key to sustained growth. Should the economy slow down, the market for ebooks would become more selective.
[BTW, here's something relevant to the discussion above: "Latest thing in hi-tech: a book". Article by

Friday, January 28, 2005

Reflections of stuff read in 2004 (part 2): Information Cascades

My continuing reflections of books read in 2004. This one's called Six Degrees: The Science of a Connected Age by Duncan J. Watts (New York : Norton, c2003 - 368 pages). Here are some additional notes which were not included in the original RawNotes posting.
  • p230 - Author gives suggestions on how to exploit knowledge to enhance the likelihood of a cascade.
  • p235 - About "cascades & percolation" - conditions necessary for global cascade.
What's "percolation" you ask?

My understanding is this: Imagine cooking a raw egg, and filming it in slow motion. You'll probably see the egg white still in a gooey mess, but in an instant, the protein parts become white. Something like that... Watts explains it way better than I have.

Which then made me think that perhaps the role of libraries & librarians is to:
• Create a "percolating cluster" (see p236 - "no complete general solution exists")
• Target the "ripe" or "vulnerable" cluster
• Identify & even create the connections ("axions") - "beyond a certain point, percolation occurs (define)

Maybe I could paint you an IMAGINARY SCENE -- set in the future, describing LIBRARIANS at WORK:
Liblogarian1: I have Idea Cluster marked Two-one-zero-niner online, Sir. Its network has expanded beyond initial range. Percolation probability above one. Looks like percolation is eminent, Sir.

Liblogarian2: Isn't that the cluster our folks at Outreach did a 30-sec Net-session last month? On "Traditional Asian Cuisines of the late 20th century: Their inpact on primary school education today"?

Liblogarian1: No Sir. That was two-TWO-zero-niner. We did the Comic Book routine for cluster 2109, called "What if Superman wore his underwear the right way?". The kids loved it.

Liblogarian2: Oh yes. The same session the folks at (Readers') Advisory chipped in with their Flash-Vid segment.

Liblogarian1: Sir, Advisory is asking if they can tag along again to try their enhanced Group-share chip for this mission.

Liblogarian2: Sure. The kids loved them the last time. Invite George from Acquisitions as well. I know he's dying to get his nose off his Flex-screens & have his Info-Gear out.

Liblogarian1: Roger that. A-Team 6 is on the way.

I don't blame you if you didn't understand a word of what went on. It's more than a little cryptic. Must have been reading Vernor Vinge I guess. I suppose if you are a practicing Public Librarian, you might know a little of what I'm saying.

Ok, last thing on why you should read the book. There's a really interesting case study of the Toyota-Aisin crisis in 1997. It's about how a fire at the Toyota factory almost ruined the company -- certain of its original production moulds (found no where else) were all destroyed in the fire, crippling production. The crisis was severe enough to have affected Japan's economy. Yet intriguingly Toyota was able to recover back to normal production levels within days, even though there were no contingency plans in place.

One conclusion was that the more "networked" we are, the more subseptible we'd be to risks . But conversely, this disadvantage is also a strength, i.e. it allows us to recover faster than if we were not linked. Similar parallels with regards to the Sept 11 incident, which affected businesss in New York City.

Thursday, January 20, 2005

Reflections of stuff read in 2004 (part 1)

I'm not sure how you choose to mark the passing of the old year. Me? I close the chapter to the previous year by publishing a list of (mostly) books read in the previous year.

The stuff I read in 2004 proved to be pretty much the same as previous years -- military-related fiction & non-fiction; Sci-Fi; Business & Management; a smattering of library/ book-related non-fiction. But I picked up a few YP fiction books and Graphic Novels though, to better acquaint myself with the YP collection. Also read one novel by Sandra Brown because I wanted to know why it was popular with women (hey, I always say, "A good salesman must know what he has to offer!")

A few colleagues asked if publishing a personal reading list would mean a loss of personal privacy. I suppose it depends on the individual's viewpoint. Frankly, I don't see it as a problem at all. So what if people know that I read certain stuff?

As a Mandarin phrase goes, “高兴都来不及”-- poorly translated as "Can't wait to be happy, let along being worried". Besides, one could always leave out any sensitive or controversial stuff (if any). Publishing a personal reading list does not make one's life an open book, does it? Which begs the question, "Does it matter if your life is an open book?"

Oh, contrary to certain public perception, Singapore is NOT a police-state. No one gets arrested if they read things like Karl Marx's "The Communist Manifesto" or Adolf Hitler's "Mein Kampf". These are available in our public libaries, by the way.