What is a book today?

One sign of the profound implications of some forms for technology are the types of questions that they force one to ask after considering its implications. Last week at the Internet Archive Books in Browsers meeting one of the questions that kept arising reflected on the impact of the move to digital distribution in our information exchange environment. Eric Hellman first posed this question in his presentation about his forthcoming service GlueJar, although several asked similar versions of the same question:

“What is a book [in a digital context]?”

What made a physical thing a book in the analog context is no longer what makes a thing a book today. Certainly, there still are physical things we call books. But in our new digital age, books are much more complex things. Books are no longer just the text. Nor are they even constrained by a certain text length or form, given the potential provided by a linking environment. Using semantic markup and linked data opportunities, there are no longer constraints about even the content of the item. During his talk Networked books and networked reading, Kevin Kelly described the ultimate goal of every Wikipedia entry should be one where every word or phrase in a text is hyperlinked to another richer document.

There are even more complex content forms, which might still be variations on the single digital media form of a book. The text of a file might be rendered with text to speech technology so that a digital text file is now possibly also an audio book. This could be an author or dramatic reading included as part of the package, or simply machine processed reading. As translation tools improve even a text expression of an item (to use FRBR terminology) could also be a simultaneous expression in other languages, simply rendered onto the screen. Even the idea that a book is a self-contained thing that could be packaged, distributed and preserved is an open question, as we consider the possibility of a book that links outside to a live streaming embedded video.

All of these questions about what is a book and what are the implications of a networked multimedia experience that we are now faced with, present a variety of challenges for the information distribution community. For the editors and publishers, who are lovingly and carefully creating their content, which enhancements of the content-expression does one focus the most attention on. This directly goes to the cost of content creation and the potential return for the authors and publishers. Hugh McGuire during his presentation said that Ebooks should be no more difficult to create than a website, which is fine but of course putting together a great website isn’t an easy piece of work either.

From a cataloging and library perspective, where do those various elements get described and stored within a catalog? How best to expose those forms and how they will be indexed and ultimately served to patrons and users is again another challenge both for search and discovery services. Finally, the preservation of this digital content stream is nearly painful in its consideration. This is due, in part to the fact that these different media forms are developing and changing at different timescales by different constituencies. The expertise in text preservation, video preservation, and software preservation are not usually held by the same people.

Often the technical questions drive deeper philosophical conversations about the meaning and impact of the changes at hand. It is likely that with ebooks we have entered that phase, where the questions and the answers to those questions will drive much of our forward momentum for decades to come.

I was asked at the end of a panel discussion at the Frankfurt Tools of Change meeting what will we be working on five years from now. I punted on the question, not that there aren’t a variety of things that we need to accomplish. However, I expect that we will likely be trying to answer some of these deep philosophical questions we are beginning to pose now. The answers to these questions are not obvious, but their implications are profound. In all likelihood, we’ll be working our way through these questions for many years to come.

There are so many angles and issues to address, purely from a standards and technology perspective. This does not take into account the other vexing problems of cultural nor business challenges that ebook present us. This is absolutely not to say that we are spinning our wheels and being unproductive. These questions and issues are difficult, complex and interwoven. Coming to some resolution will take time, energy, attention to detail and sustained commitment.