“What a difference a day makes:”  The WEB and Digital Publishing in Hong Kong

Column Editor:  Anthony (Tony) W. Ferguson (Library Director, University of Hong Kong;  Phone: 852 2859 2200;  Fax: 852 2858 9420)  <ferguson@hkucc.hku.hk>

My colleague Angela Ko and I were recently asked to talk about publishing in contemporary Hong Kong.1 As I thought about how to convey in this column our findings, the title of the romantic ballad “What a Difference a Day Makes,” with which Dinah Washington won a Grammy in 1959, kept coming into my mind.  My initial reasoning was that, what a difference the span of only ten years has made in the nature of publishing, that so much has happened in such a short amount of time.  Yet, when I Google’d the song’s title so that I could talk further about what a difference this span of time has meant, I discovered that the lyrics clearly indicated that the difference was not the short time span of only 24 hours, but because of the person with whom the singer had spent the day:  “And the difference is you.”  While I was initially nonplussed, as I thought about it, the difference was, like the ballad, not a function of the time spent, but because of the other person, in this case the other entity, the WEB, which made the difference.2

The WEB has forever changed the nature of publishing in this little corner of China just as movable type printing (engraved clay pieces glued to sheets of iron), which was invented as early as the Ching-Li period of Chinese history, 1041-1048, changed the flow of information about China’s rich culture nearly one thousand years ago.3 While printed books still abound here, digital publishing is already big in Hong Kong and is making a big difference in how information is shared.

Just as the early wood block and later moveable clay type printing was used for communicating religious and philosophical texts, one of the earliest uses of digital publishing in Hong Kong was the digitization of the Si Ku Quan Shu, a 36,000 volume collection of important texts first brought together by the Qing Dynasty Emperor Qian-lung in the late 1700’s.  Initially we bought digital texts like this on CD-ROMs, but now our library and others provide readers with WEB based text versions of these Chinese classics.

Now however, perhaps some of the most used electronic sources of information in Hong Kong are news sources.  Hong Kong has a full-text database, WiseNews, compiled from more than 1,600 news sources including newspapers, Websites, etc.  They claim that more than 200,000 new articles are added daily dealing with everything Chinese.  Moreover, Hong Kong is still a city whose people love to read newspapers.  Accordingly, we now have 13 daily electronic newspapers in Chinese and two in English which must be purchased.  There are also four Chinese and two free English newspapers for everyone to enjoy.  Finally, since business in China is important to the success of this commercial capital, it is not surprising that there are also a host of other electronic news sources like China infoBank, published in Hong Kong since 1992 to help the business community make its decisions.

The development of electronic publishing by Hong Kong’s academic presses is growing but uneven.  The University of Hong Kong Press, for example, has decided that they will be a multi-platform content provider to “anyone, anytime, anywhere, via any media.”  Hence, they are not only republishing their backlists, but they are trying to produce eBooks as close to paper book distribution as possible and they are selling their titles independently as well as through all possible digital content providers.  Additionally, they are making headway in the selling paper versions of their eBooks via print-on-demand services like Lightning Source International.  The other academic presses in Hong Kong are a bit behind HKU Press but they are all making progress.  In addition to Hong Kong’s academic presses selling eBooks, all provide free content on the Web.  HKU Press, for example, has developed a core set of texts for the use of primary and secondary school teachers and students and these are freely available via the HK Government sponsored Knowledge Exchange portal hosted by HKEdCity.

Hong Kong’s academic libraries have also been actively engaged in digital publishing.  My own library, from which I have just retired, has been involved in a broad range of 29 digital initiatives.  We have provided, for example, table of contents information for thousands of books published in or about Hong Kong; we are in the process of providing full text versions of all western language books in our collections published before the end of the Qing Dynasty (1911) about China; we provide, with the permission of local publishers, electronic versions of printed scholarly journals (the Chinese University of Hong Kong provides this service as well); and we have digitized collections like the Hong Kong War Crimes Trials Collection.  The Chinese University, Lingnan University, Baptist University, and the City University libraries all have scores of digital projects as well.

Hong Kong’s government, like government printing houses the world over, is also actively engaged in the digital publishing of new materials.  So far, it seems as if the various agencies are each doing their own thing without regard to what others are doing, but the amount of digital information that Hong Kong’s citizens can access about is enormous.  Similarly, the political parties and action groups in support of or critical of the Government are making full use of the WEB to convey their points of view.  China allows Hong Kong under its “One Country – Two Systems” policy to enjoy complete freedom of the press/information and the WEB is a great way of making this all happen.

Angela and I concluded our presentation by saying that all parts of Hong Kong’s information institutions are, like the rest of the world, going digital.  While it is true that some parts of the system are moving faster than others, yet, it is clear that this is the strategic direction being taken by all parts of the Hong Kong community.


1.  At a meeting held in conjunction with the 2011 Online Information Asia-Pacific meeting in Hong Kong.  See http://www.online-information.asia/.

2.  Wikipedia.  This well known song was written originally in Spanish by the Mexican composer Maria Mendez Grever, but later popularized when it was rendered in English by Stanley Adams and sung by the likes of Dinah Washington, Sarah Vaughn, Diana Ross, Aretha Franklin, Tony Bennett and others: See http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/What_a_Diff’rence_a_Day_Made#Song_information.

3.  While the Chinese and Koreans had employed wood block printing for several hundreds of years prior to the invention of moveable type for the printing of religious and philosophical texts, it was not until the turn of the first millennium that the alchemist Pi Sheng perfected the technology for engraving single characters on thousands of small character blocks and then gluing them to iron sheets for printing .  See the following Website for additional information about early printing in China: http://www.computersmiths.com/chineseinvention/movtype.htmGuttenberg, in the early 1440’s developed moveable metal type.  See the following for more information: http://inventors.about.com/od/gstartinventors/a/Gutenberg.htm.