DjVU – Something old, something new

On: March 3, 2013
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About Maaike Hansen


“I’m an e-book nitwit and frankly I don’t care”. About a year ago I still could not believe e-books could be anything but miserable. I was sure that I would never feel the same way about reading from a screen compared to paper books. After all, I am the girl who buys three different newspapers every Saturday, mostly because I like my dining table best when it’s scattered with papers and you can find several mugs of cold coffee floating around amongst them. I love the crispy pages, inky fingers and the possibility to close a book after I finish it: this analogue girl would never follow the e-book trend. I was afraid that the e-book would ‘outbook the book’ (Triphas, 2010).

But, as Galloway would say, our lives are filled with use of standards that are constantly evolving:  just like that one format can beat out another format and become an industry standard. (2006)
For me it all changed when I finally bought my iPad 2 last summer. In a couple of weeks my reading habits had changed radically. Many an EPUB was read on my new best friend and the never ending stream of new titles I could purchase in the Apple Store was almost too much to bear. After I started classes in the autumn, I also discovered the iPad’s academic value; reading journals and papers in PDF proved to be children’s play. I experienced that this technology could give me things a book couldn’t, while still trying to look as a book (less bright, layout, able to flip pages). I was hooked!

Unfortunately I quickly discovered that my device and the Internet weren’t enough: many texts weren’t available or weren’t even spoken of online. Quietly moping over the fact that my shiny iPad was not the solution to all my problems after all (I should have never given up my Magic Eight Ball), I returned to spending my days at libraries, with paper books that looked old and dusty compared to my recent reading device. Taking pictures of pages helped, but the quality when zooming in was awful, and obviously searching for keywords was impossible.

Luckily someone came up with a solution. The DjVU format, developed in 1996, is designed to save scanned documents in high resolution. DjVU was developed by Yann LeCunLéon Bottou, Patrick Haffner, and Paul G. Howard. (Haffner & Co.: 1999)
DjVu is an image compression technique specifically geared towards the compression of scanned documents in color at high resolution. Documents with pictures, graphs and other fancy extras can be scanned and saved, without losing any legibility.
The biggest advantage of DjVU has to be the filesize; when saving a certain document on a PDF format, you have to use significantly more space than you would with DjVU.  (Haffner & co.: 1999)
Besides, with the right tools it is (almost) as accessible as PDF; DjVU is supported by software on Linux, Android, iPhone and Blackberry and can therefore be used on most devices.
The interface of DjVU is especially appealing for those of us who appreciate a ‘real’ book. When reading a text you don’t scroll down, but rather click in the right upper corner, like turning a page. Therefore, the so-called bookishness remains in this format.
Another advantage is its efficiency: by using an OCR layer, it is possible to work inside the document: you can search within the text. This makes analyzing and reading old documents much easier, seeing as you don’t have to skim all of the text first. (Haffner & Co: 1999)
Last but definitely not least; DjVU has always been an open source format, whereas Adobes PDF was protected and had to be purchased before it was opened up in 2008. (Leurs, 2009) This could be something you’ll want to take into consideration if you’re pro open source.

Is there anything wrong with DjVU? ‘Wrong’ may be a strong word, but there are some kinks. Even though it is supported on most devices, DjVU is not as widely known as PDF, results in fewer compatible programs and apps. Therefore, it is not quite as user friendly as PDF.
Besides, Adobe is rapidly improving their software, making PDF files more compressed. Another aspect is that we have more space than we used to have a couple of years ago; it doesn’t really matter how large a file is. It is therefore quite possible that the biggest advantage of DjVU will not be necessary in the not so distant future. This is something only time will tell.

Even though DjVU might not be as renowned as PDF, it certainly has some advantages when it comes to filesize, resolution and usability. Especially old documents with drawings and inscriptions can be digitalized easily, and research will be less stressfull with a searching tool within the document. Today, DjVU is still a true addition to several known text-based formats.

And what about me? I’ll probably combine digital with analogue and read scanned newspapers on my iPad in DjVU, at my dining table filled with mugs with cold coffee.



Haffner, P., Bottou, L., Howard, P.G., LeCun, Y. DjVu: analyzing and compressing scanned documents for Internet distribution during Document Analysis and Recognition, 1999. ICDAR ’99. Proceedings of the Fifth International Conference on, 20-22 sep 1999

Alexander Galloway, ‘Protocol versus Institutionalization’, in Wendy Hui Kyong Chun and Thomas Keenan (eds) New Media, Old Media: A History and Theory Reader, London: Routledge, 2006, pp. 187-198.

Ted Striphas, ‘The Abuses of Literacy: Amazon Kindle and the Right to Read’, Communication and Critical/Cultural Studies 7.3 (2010): 297-317.
Laurens Leurs, The History of PDF, 2009
read at 02.03.2013

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