Introduction to electronic books and EPub 3.0

workshop / tutorial
  1. 1. Michael Sperberg-McQueen

    Black Mesa Technologies LLC

Work text
This plain text was ingested for the purpose of full-text search, not to preserve original formatting or readability. For the most complete copy, refer to the original conference program.

1. Description
An essential property of modern reading and writing was recognized decades ago by Ted Nelson: we can now read using devices which can evaluate conditional expressions and do different things depending on the result. The full implications of the use of electronic devices as technologies for reading won't be clear for a long while, if ever, but some of them are beginning to be clearer as the history of text presentation with computers continues.

The availability of electronic reading devices touches on the concerns of digital humanities in several ways. As students and analysts of human cultural consumption, digital humanists will study with interest any shift in technologies of reading, even ones whose effects are less seismic in scope than those of the shift to electronic text. As scholars who deploy the tools of information technology to study texts of the past more effectively, digital humanists should know the capabilities and limitations of current ebook technologies, as they compare with other ways of studying texts. And as producers and consumers of texts for ourselves and for our students, digital humanists will often wish to view ebooks from a producer's or publisher's point of view.

This tutorial offers an introduction to current standards for electronic books, focusing on EPub 3.0 (a standard issued by the International Digital Publishing Federation) with side glances at other specifications. The competition to EPub 3.0 includes proprietary ebook formats and page-image formats like PDF and DejaVu; the supporting specifications for EPub 3.0 include XHTML, HTML 5, CSS, SVG, and Zip.

Many of the challenges of ebook production will be familiar to anyone with experience in book or journal production: mathematics, tables, graphics, and figures are no easier to handle (but, happily, also not much harder) in electronic books than they are in print publications or on the Web. Others will be familiar from web-site production: incompatibilities among ebook readers resemble the incompatibilities among Web browsers in the mid- to late 1990s, and the relation of hardware or software behavior to the prescriptions of the specification remains (to put it gently) complex. Earlier versions of the EPub standard put strict limits on the use of interactive elements; this lowered the threshold for ebook production, but also the ceiling of what was possible in a standards-compliant ebook. So the tutorial will devote special attention to clarifying what is (and is not) made possible by the broader rules of EPub 3.0.

Prerequisites: no firm prerequisities. Participants with some familiarity with XML, HTML, HTML 5, and CSS will be in a better position to follow the details of examples.

2. Contact information
C. M. Sperberg-McQueen

Black Mesa Technologies, LLC

259 State Road 399

Española NM 87532-3170

Tel. +1 (505) 747-4224 (w) 692-7019 (m)


I am an information-technology consultant specializing in problems of preservation and access for cultural heritage materials, publishing systems, and scholarly and public information. My research interests are centered around problems of information modeling and document processing; my practical expertise centers around XML and related technologies.

3. Target audience and expected number of participants
The target audience consists of digital humanists interested in understanding the current generation of open specifications for electronic books and how to exploit them to solve design problems in ebook production.

I've never taught this tutorial before, so I have no relevant experience on which to base an estimate of audience size. Any audience size from 5 to 50 seems possible.

4. Technical support
No requirements beyond the LCD projector, screen, and wifi mentioned on the web site.

5. Outline
A tentative half-day schedule is:

Session 1 (90 minutes)

Introduction to the course.
Varieties of electronic books and electronic reading devices; an informal survey (30 minutes).
Overview of the EPub 3.0 specification and foundational specs. What is specified, where? What is left to vary among products? Role of XHTML, HTML 5, CSS, and Zip in EPub 3.0. (30 minutes).
Examples: building an EPub 3.0 publication by hand, with XHTML editor, file system, and zip. Tools for automating construction of ebooks. (30 minutes).
Session 2 (90 minutes)

Quick survey of some alternatives to EPub 3.0: EPub 2.0, Kindle formats, PDF, proprietary apps, Web pages.

Problems in ebook delivery:

gaps in CSS support
gaps in HTML 5 support
variations in interpretation of spec
memory management
Challenges in ebook design:

mathematics and other formula languages
graphics, diagrams
multilingual texts
punctual annotations
running commentary
dictionary lookup and other reader aids
user interaction
openness to the Web
Concluding words. Where to go from here? Further resources.

A full-day version of the tutorial would cover essentially the same topics, in more detail, and with some opportunities for hands-on work by the participants. I would have a mild preference for a full-day version, but I would also be happy to teach a half-day tutorial.

If this content appears in violation of your intellectual property rights, or you see errors or omissions, please reach out to Scott B. Weingart to discuss removing or amending the materials.

Conference Info


ADHO - 2014
"Digital Cultural Empowerment"

Hosted at École Polytechnique Fédérale de Lausanne (EPFL), Université de Lausanne

Lausanne, Switzerland

July 7, 2014 - July 12, 2014

377 works by 898 authors indexed

XML available from (needs to replace plaintext)

Conference website:

Attendance: 750 delegates according to Nyhan 2016

Series: ADHO (9)

Organizers: ADHO

  • Keywords: None
  • Language: English
  • Topics: None