eBooks: Books in Electronic Form

An Idea Born in the '70s

Young woman using digital tablet
••• How the eBook Began. Kris Ubach and Quim Roser/Cultura/Getty Images

The term ebook (or e-book) is a conjunction of the words “electronic book,” and refers to the text of a book which made available digitally, usually downloaded, and accessed through a device such as a computer, a smartphone or, popularly, a portable, dedicated ebook reader.

The invention of the ebook is generally credited to Michael Hart. In 1971, when given a valuable chunk of computer time on a Xerox mainframe, Hart set out to begin storing the vast contents of our libraries in electronic formats that would be searchable and retrievable.

Hart named his efforts Project Gutenberg, after the inventor of the printing press.

Because the value of electronic databases for research purposes, libraries were early adopters of the technology. But it took nearly thirty years for the idea of the ebook to take firm hold with the consumer. Now ebooks are widely used and widely available.

There are a number of competing ebook formats and handheld ereader devices, including Barnes & Noble’s NOOK, Amazon.com’s Kindle, Apple iBooks, Microsoft Reader, Adobe PDF, and more. Some of these formats are proprietary (for example, you can’t read a NOOK ebook on a Kindle), and they offer slightly different capabilities.

Like their print book counterparts, ebook readers are highly portable. One clear advantage of the ebook reader over its print progenitors is that the device can contain literally hundreds of books on a single device. Ebooks are searchable and some are “enhanced” with extra material, such as photos or video.

There are many outlets from which to download ebooks--many booksellers and publishers offer that option. Some, like bn.com, offer a selection of free ebooks to customers as well. Michael Hart’s Project Gutenberg offers free ebooks for works that are in the public domain. Google ebooks also offers a large selection of free ebooks--they claim a list of "nearly 3 million."