Librarian's Lobby
by Daniel D. Stuhlman
June 2006

Reading Electronic Books

Recently I read my first full length e-book. While I am no stranger to reading articles and student work on the computer screen, reading a full book is some new. The concept of an electronic book is not new. Project Gutenberg [1] was started in 1971. Michael Hart had a $100 million worth of computer time of what was then a huge computer, the Xerox Sigma V mainframe at the Materials Research Lab at the University of Illinois, Champaign-Urbana. Hart must have been a Star Trek fan because he based his idea on what he called, "Replicator Technology.” That is once words are typed into a computer’s memory it could be searched and reproduced indefinitely. Anyone, anywhere with computer access could read a copy of the work.

Remember this was 1971 before the Apple computers, before the Elf, IBM PC, S-100 and any other personal computer. Modems in those days were strictly for dumb terminals to connect to main frames with dial up service. If you were lucky you could dial up at the rate of 300 bits per second, which translates to 30 characters. These modems were acoustically coupled to the phone hand piece by placing the hand piece into cups. In 1972 the company Videc shipped the first 1200 bits / second modem. 300/1200 speeds were the standard until the mid 1980’s. At one time the industry told us the theoretical limit for modems attached to personal computer was 1200 bps. Eventually modems had speeds of 2400 then 9600, 14,400 and faster. At 9600 they were as fast as some terminals connected to in house mainframes. Compare this rate with home DSL and cable speeds. Sending graphics over a modem was never even considered until the mid-1990 with the rise of the Internet.

Michael Hart wanted texts of books and other literary works to be in a format that anyone could read without concern for hardware and software requirements. He choose to type in, not scan, the text with “plain vanilla ASCII,” which allows regular print, bold, italics and underlines on a computer screen or printed page. It does not allow choices in fonts or size. His first text was the Declaration of Independence All works in Project Gutenberg are in the public domain; that means the copyright had expired or never existed. In the early years floppy disks could hold 360K of information. This was hardly enough for a whole books. The Declaration of Independence required only 5K. Using zip compression they could store about 3 megs on a 3.5 inch disk. Eventually they were able to add illustrations. An early example was Alice in Wonderland with John Tenniel’s illustrations. In 1991 Project Gutenberg’s text could fit in a 0.5 gigabyte section of a hard drive. Currently they claim to have 18,000 books in their catalog. They have more than 1.7 million downloads per month.

Today e-books are offered by public, school and academic libraries as a way of making materials available without taking up shelf space. A library patron also does not have to physically visit the library in order to check out the book. There are two models for checking out e-books-- a defined check-out period or an indefinite check-out. Books can be browsed or read entirely on line without checking them out. Companies also sell e-books to consumers. [2] There are also some collections of Judaica e-books and e-books sold individually by publishers. These e-books are in a variety of formats including PDF and other formats that require a download of reader software. On the screen the visual graphic image is the same or almost the same as if the book was in front of you. With reference software such as Bar Ilan Judaic Library the text is stored and can be displayed in formats selected by the reader.

My real topic is how we read e-books [3] . About 10 years ago I bought a CD with 1700 electronic works, called Library of the Future. The idea was to have a large library of materials that I could check electronically and read when needed. I used the CD a few times to look for references to works I didn’t have hard copies. It is a great way to save shelf space for little used materials. I mean I rarely used it. First the texts were not authoritative and well documented. I could use them for casual reading, but not as a research source.

Why did it take me so long to read my first e-book?  First it is ironic that the book was, The Book Publishing Industry, by Albert N. Greco. Mahwah, NJ Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, Incorporated, 2004. [4] To paraphrase a business principle, one will read a book on line when reading is less painful than not knowing. [5] I read it because I wanted to learn more about the book industry and the book was not available in hard copy. The Chicago Public Library has no e-books but it does offer downloadable audio books. Some public libraries offer popular titles using NetLibrary or eBrary.

According to Josephine Bowden in an article published in 1911 [6], adults do no think about the process of reading. She compares it to the automatic skill needed for walking. The adult can not describe the process of learning to read. Bowden and many later researchers have studied eye movements during reading. At first children learn to decode letters by focusing on them individually. They learn to associate a letter with a sound, then letter form words. Since the child is already fluent in spoken language, the child eventually makes the leap to connect the visual graphic to the word in his mind. This idea is reinforced by Eleanor, J Gibson [7] in “Learning to Read.” This is the basis of the theory that foreign language should be taught to speak (oral) and listen (aural) before learning to read and write. An adult reader is not aware of how his eyes move on the page. Eventually the learner can read whole wording without the decoding of each letter. The next process is the seeing of phrases.

Before anyone could teach speed reading, natural speed readers were studied. It was discovered they learned on their own how to move their eyes across the page to grasp larger groups of words, than slower readers. In teaching speed reading, the student learns to read longer phrases. A tachiscope which flashes groups of words on a screen is used to increase the speed one reads. Students are taught to let the words move from the page to their brain without sounding out the words. Speed reading required the maturing reader to undo the oral skills learned in the elementary grades. Eventually students should be able to grasp a full line at a time. Natural speed readers learned this on their own. [8] To make this grasping of entire lines easier, magazines put the text into columns. This process of grouping words is what psychologists would call chunking. We have a limitation of about seven of the items we can catch at one time without help. The item could be a name, a word or a concept. By increasing the size of the “chunk” we can assimilate more information.

By the time a person first reads a sentence on the computer screen, they are already familiar with the printed word. The printed word is the standard rather than the handwritten or electronic word. E-books mimic what appears in a printed book. This is a problem. For example few people own screens big enough to read an entire page on the screen. Examine the ratios. A typical printed page is (centimeters are used for easy in calculations) 23 cm x 15 cm with the print appearing in an 18 x 11 area. The ratio of height to width is 1.53 and 1.7 respectively. A regular 21.6 cm x 28 cm. (8.5 x 11 inch) piece of paper has a ration of 1.13. A computer screen of 24 x 33 cm (16 inch diameter) has a ratio of 0.72. (A square would have the ration of 1.0.) This means the screen gives a totally different view of the page than the printed word. When the print information originally appeared in columns, reading on the screen is a challenge. Since the whole page will not fit on the screen and still be big enough to read, one must scroll down the first column, then scroll up to the top of the page, move the focus to the next column and repeat for each column. The process needs to be repeated for each page. While the reader gets the same intellectual content as the reader of the print edition, the process is more tedious. One never notices the delay in switching page in the printed work. This scrolling for each column and page defeats most attempts to speed read with the skills learned for use on the printed word. Jstor and other data base systems for journal articles store images of journal pages rather than editable text. Other systems such as Wilson store the text. This makes it possible to reformat the text on the screen for easier reading.

While many articles have been written on the science of reading and how eyes view the page, I could find none about the science of reading from a computer screen. I asked several people (a non-scientific query) how they read from the screen. Some people say they can’t read articles or books from the screen and therefore they print out what they want to read. One reading teacher said that students looking at video games learn how to read only short phrases or single words. My high school aged son prints many pages from on line sources so that he can read and review them more than once.

What was learned about the science or process of reading has not been applied to the computer screen. To read faster from the computer screen we need to be able group the images of the word efficiently. The white space between words and paragraphs needs to be comfortable for quick reading. For me that means a blank line between paragraphs and no full justification. Much research needs to be done on the perception of words on the screen and then apply that research to the storing and displaying of e-texts before reading e-text will be as natural as reading a printed page. After the process is better understood e-books and journal articles will be more accepted.

Daniel D. Stuhlman is president of Stuhlman Management Consultants, a firm helping organizations turn data and information into knowledge. We are looking for new clients and opportunities. Visit the web site to learn more about knowledge management and what our firm can do for you. Previous issues of Librarian's Lobby can be found at:


[1] See Hart, Michael S. History and Philosophy of Project Gutenberg. © August 1992 Found at:

[2] It is beyond the scope of this article to list all the options for e-books. Companies such as and eBrary have collections that are marketed to libraries so that libraries can expand their collections. Since I am involved in distance education, the option to find materials without a physical visit to the library is very important. This is a different theory of distribution from companies that offer the ability to search works that are not meant to be read in their entirety.

[3] The price of e-books is high. For example, The Case for Israel, by Alan Dershowitz costs $19.95. The paperback version lists for $12.95 new and can be bought on Amazon for $9.97. The used price is about $4.00.

[4] Found at: Drexel University’s library has 32 e-book collections. Not all the collections list the number of volumes, but just counting the ones listed means there are more than 60,000 titles. It is a great resource for those of us who can’t visit the library in person. While some of these titles also exist in print and on the regular shelves, estimating with very conservative numbers this saves the library about 7500 linear feet of shelving.

[5] Based on the statement by Pip Coburn, “The problem has to be more painful than the perceived pain of adopting the new technology.”

[6] Bowden, Josephine Horton. “Learning to Read” from The Elementary School Teacher. V. 12:1, Sept. 1911. Retrieved on June 14, 2006.

[7] Gibson, Eleanor, J. “Learning to Read” Science, New Series, v. 148:3673. May 21,1965, p. 1066-1072. Retrieved on June 14, 2006.

[8] Another aspect of speed reading is the ability to use semantic anticipation. That means the mature reader will supply letters, phonemes, or morphemes before seeing the letter on the page. See “Semantic, Syntactic, and Spatial Anticipation in Reading” by Daniel M. Wildman and Martin Kling found in Reading Research Quarterly, Vol. 14, No. 2. (1978 - 1979) for more information. Retrieved from Jstor on June 20, 2006.

Last revised June 20, 2006.
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