The Online Books Page is a website that facilitates access to books that are freely readable over the Internet. It was created and is managed by Dr. John Mark Ockerbloom at the University of Pennsylvania Library, which supports and hosts the site.
At first glance, The Online Books Page appears to be a simple and unassuming website. Originally created in 1993, its layout and design appears to have survived its 30 year history without alteration. Hidden beneath The Online Book Page’s austere interface, however, is a powerhouse of discoverability. According to Google Analytics data, The Online Books Page has referred more users to HathiTrust in the past two years than any other source, including Google! And HathiTrust is just one of many free ebook sites discoverable via this site.
The Online Books Page links to over 3 million fully readable online books. These books are organized in a way that warms a librarian’s heart: They are simply listed by title, author, Library of Congress subject heading and LC call number. While there is a helpful search function, the site is designed to allow for browsing and the serendipitous discovery of titles that might sit on either side of a volume - or on a nearby shelf - in a physical library.
The Online Books Page was first created as a labor of love by John Mark Ockerbloom when he was a computer science graduate student, investigating information systems, at Carnegie Mellon. In June 1993, Mark Ockerbloom (his full surname) created a website for his department and, eager to highlight “cool things” people were doing on the nascent World Wide Web, included texts from Project Gutenberg and other early ebook sites: "Look, you can read books!” By 1994, he’d created lists of books by title and author, coded a basic database, and added a basic search and browse interface to the site. From there, he says, his project “sort of took off”. At first, he hoped to grow it to as many as 10,000 books, but only a few years later, he had revised this ambition to someday reach a million.
In 1999, when Mark Ockerbloom moved from Carnegie Mellon to the University of Pennsylvania Library (where he is currently a digital library architect and planner), he brought The Online Books Page with him. His project received essential institutional support, both at Carnegie Mellon and now at the Penn Libraries, which has allowed him to continue to build and manage it for almost 30 years. Mark Ockerbloom is grateful to Carnegie Mellon Computer Science and to the Penn Libraries for seeing the value in The Online Books Page and supporting his work throughout.
Site Design and Features
In terms of site design, Mark Ockerbloom says he “leans into simplicity” and the many benefits that it provides, such as fast-loading pages, ease of use, greater accessibility, and minimal maintenance requirements. He also noted that search engine algorithms favor stability: The fact that The Online Books Page has been around for so long favors it in search engine rankings. The site is also ranked highly by Google and other search engines because there are no links for advertising.
In addition to the browsable lists of books, there are special subject “feature” pages, including A Celebration of Women Writers, Banned Books Online, and Prize Winning Books Online. The Celebration of Women Writers page was created and continues to be edited by Mary Mark Ockerbloom, a professional Wikipedian married to John. The books by women writers have additional browsing options which include date, country, ethnicity, copyright status, and category. Over 400 titles by women were selected and scanned specifically to be included in The Online Books Page.
When asked why The Online Books Page has persisted, Mark Ockerbloom says its because his goals for the site and its usefulness to his professional work have remained the same: encouraging the growth and sharing of online books, and allowing authors to promote their online works. Professionally, he has continually used the site as a test platform for book discovery. He will first try out a new idea there (such as an alternative way to browse or the mass uploading of HathiTrust data). Some of the ideas he has tried out in the Online Books Page have later been implemented in Penn's main library catalog.
Mark Ockerbloom continues to explore and test new ideas and initiatives. He is currently working on the Deep Backfile project to surface copyright information about serials. A team at the Penn Libraries is researching the copyright status of journals to discern if they are public domain and may be made open access and shared freely online (and then added to The Online Books Page). In the summer of 2021, Mark Ockerbloom collaborated with Kristina Hall (the copyright review program manager at HathiTrust) on a pilot project to teach members of HathiTrust’s Copyright Review team to make copyright determinations on serial volumes in HathiTrust's collections. Another of his current initiatives is the Forward to Libraries project which adds links to Wikipedia articles that help users find relevant results in their local library catalog (or any library they select) and on The Online Books Page. The goal is to provide alternative ways to discover books (other than search engines or ILS’s) and to increase traffic to libraries.
The Online Books Page has, interestingly, created a strong community of dedicated users. Its niche focus allows for a lot of back-and-forth interactions: Users email Mark Ockerbloom with their interests and the sites and materials they want to see, provide feedback about the site, and suggest ways to improve it. They inform Mark Ockerbloom when a link is broken, if a scan is illegible, or if a page is missing, and he relays this information to the content aggregators, so they are aware of problems and can correct them. In fact, Mark Ockerbloom is one of the most frequent submitters of user support tickets to HathiTrust!
The last time he took a vacation, Mark Ockerbloom returned to find email from concerned users who were worried about his absence. He points out that human connection is fundamental to all libraries, and he values being able to recreate that via The Online Books Page.
Mark Ockerbloom plans to continue working on The Online Books Page for the next decade. His future plans include importing good sources of metadata from other sites, finding ways to bring in more current scholarship, and adding additional open access books via automated metadata feeds. He also wants to find a way to include newer banned books that are not online and make them more widely available to those who can’t access them (he is developing this new Read Banned Books page for this effort ). And he wants to use links to Wikipedia at a larger scale.
When asked, Mark Ockerbloom says his favorite thing about The Online Books Page is that it has provided him with a way to stay involved in interesting projects, people, knowledge, and arts. It enables him to keep discovering new things and what motivates people to do the work they do. “This will be one of the major life works that I did,” Mark Ockerbloom shared with us. “Hopefully it is a good thing for the world.”
For More Information
- Online Books Page Links Millions of Books (Spring 2016)