New Avatars of the Book in Digital Culture

New Avatars of the Book in Digital Culture

Why are we here?

This week the University of Western Sydney held a symposium, New Avatars of the Book in Digital Culture. I was invited to contribute to the event, in my capacity as eResearch manager. One member of my team thought it meant I was going to get to slap on the blue body paint, but sadly it wasn’t that kind of Avatar.

This symposium focuses on the changing nature and status of those peculiarly useful interactive objects we call ‘books’ in online contexts. In contrast to web-pages, files, ‘sites’ and ‘contexts’ of reading, the book still presents a useful model of rich ‘containment’ and productive constraint.

But are books possible in digital form? What elements of the book survive online? Which ones are transformed and in
 what ways? The end of the book has long been prophesied,
but how do we replicate the particular functionality (such as searching without knowing what you’re looking for), and forms 
of knowledge particular to books in online environments? 
What forms of interface can be envisioned bearing in mind 
the characteristic feedback loops between (especially) literary reading and writing? Distinguishing between the form of the book and its functionality, this symposium will explore possibilities for replicating the book’s useful functions in online environments.

(Anna Gibbs and Maria Angel, from the invitation to the event)

In this context I didn’t want to present too formally but prepared some notes for the discussion, after the keynote talks. This post contains my pre-event note/slides and a few observations from the event.

The keynotes

The keynotes were both really engaging discussions of digital culture (not so much the book).

Mitchell Whitelaw, from Canberra University talked about building “generous interfaces” to online databases. The idea is to enable a browse-based interface that attempts to show as many entry points to a collection as possible. Mitchell’s visual tools allow you to see the shape of large archival collections and explore them using both visual cues and metadata facets such as dates or creators. Dan Cohen recently asked how this might work for university web sites, I can’t see how, but it’s an interesting design challenge (hint for uni web teams – the big images that take up a third or more of the screen and change all the time don’t improve the utility of the site).

Mitchell talked a bit in the discussion about how a ‘generous’ book interface might look, showing the ‘weight’ of items in the Table of Contents, giving a sense of the shape of a work,  a potential site for further research.

Jason Nelson, from Griffith uni talked about his practice as a digital poet, which didn’t involve any pretentious reading out loud, but did involve an array of amusing, rude and occasionally moving online stuff, which I won’t attempt to describe or critique it.

As Jason demoed various Flash and HTML stuff he’d made I was thinking about all the problems he’d create for archivists, and indeed he does; he told us about how he’d had to deposit screen-capture walk-throughs into the Griffith repository as proxies for the actual games and interactive poem-things he creates[1]. He’s a textbook example of the difficult-to-archive new media artist. See game game game and again game, which apparently may ruin your life.

I was glad I didn’t have to follow Jason directly with my rather more sedate stuff about techno-socio-political considerations, standards and such. But at least my cut-price embedded slide-shows don’t look too shabby compared to his low-tech, low-culture hand-drawn stuff.

The readings

There were two readings for this symposium. One is a long essay Graphesis: Visual Knowledge Production and Representation by Joanna Drucker (2010). It’s a well-referenced survey of different approaches to “critical understanding of visual knowledge production” with only passing reference to books. I thought this was a really useful way of mapping the jagged edges of a huge theoretical hole, but it doesn’t provide any answers about how we might explore bookishness, or redefine the book.

The second reading is a piece from Alan Liu, (2009) which, I think, assumes that the end of the book is obvious, apparently because we can put books online and search and tag them and dismember them in an online environment. He cites three scholarly web applications to demonstrate that books are dead, but I don’t really buy it. One of them is the Open Journal Systems software, which is not about books anyway, it’s a workflow system for managing journal production. Last time I checked it was mostly used by editors to produce journals consisting of PDF files, on the web but not of the web.

The end of the sign?

We don’t herald the “end of the sign” just because people have annotated a sign. And remember, books have always been ‘hypertextual’ via referencing, quoting and wholesale stealing.

The end of the book?

Liu says, in reference to some other symposium:

As suggested by the title of this symposium (Bookishness: The New Fate of Reading in the Digital Age), the best way to think about the book in the digital age may well be to focus on bookishness. From the point of view of the digital, the book has already gone away. So the remaining question is “what happens to bookishness?” Or, again, “where does bookishness go?”

I don’t know where bookishness goes, or what happens to it.

From the point of view of this eResearch person books have not gone away. And from the point of view of the digital (who knew the digital had a point of view?) books have most emphatically not gone away and do have digital analogues:

Rumours of demise of book greatly exaggerated

That’s actually quite a lot of books, with no apparent existential crisis. Not so many magazines; they’re not making the transition to eReaders and tablets as happily as books. I think Craig Mod’s post on ‘subcompact publishing’ is worth reading on this issue, he looks at new models for magazine-like publications which might work better than the current approach of putting entire magazines into tablet apps complete with page-layout and ads.

It goes without saying that an e book is different in many ways from a paper book but nobody in the mainstream is having any trouble with the concept of delivering or buying books digitally (though they may be less relaxed when they finally realize that they’ve been renting the books, not building the family library). Scholars can have all the fun they like debating the demise of the form, and speculating about function, but the book is obviously very much alive.

Craig Mod’s subcompact recipe

I propose Subcompact Publishing tools and editorial ethos begin (but not end) with the following qualities:

  • Small issue sizes (3-7 articles / issue)

  • Small file sizes

  • Digital-aware subscription prices

  • Fluid publishing schedule

  • Scroll (don’t paginate)

  • Clear navigation

  • HTML(ish) based

  • Touching the open web

I think that Mod’s list of qualities looks like at least a good check-list for any bookish project to consider.

The book is not the only bounded object to make the transition from the physical to the virtual.

Take today’s Wikipedia entry on album:

In musical usage the word was used for collections of short pieces of printed music from the early nineteenth century.[2] Later, collections of related 78rpm records were bundled in book-like albums.[3] When long-playing records were introduced, a collection of pieces on a single record was called an album; the word was extended to other recording media such as compact discMiniDiscCompact audio cassette, and digital or MP3 albums, as they were introduced.[4]

(Anon. 2012)

And the ‘album’ is still alive even in all-digital online distribution. If the recorded-music-album can survive, and it obviously has, then the much older book is no danger. In a nice bit of back-formation, the scholars at Amazon have made the link between the book-omnibus or magazine to the record-album and come up with a way of describing long essays that they presumably feel a bit coy about marketing as eBooks.

Singles:

I should point out that this workshop was not about the end of the book. In fact, Maria Angel asked, in the introduction; how might the constraints, and bounds of the book create an interesting space for innovation?

Interesting things about C21 books

Mapping the enlightenment book trade

The book trade no longer looks like this:

Figure 1 Searching for a sales destinations for an author

(From a project led by Professor Simon Burrows of Leeds, who is joining UWS soon)

A map

Figure 2 The search returns a map

Potential research project: What does a map of the modern book/eBook trade look like?

How to visualise this?

  • Vertical sales channels*

  • Software distribution across channels and device types.**

  • Geographic distribution of channels

  • DRM; Digital Rights (Restrictions) Management.

  • Copyright territories

  • Geographic distribution of DMCA-type laws

  • The naughty-net DRM-free distribution system.

  • * There is some ‘leakage’ between channels, eg Kindle apps on Apple iOS, but there complicated dynamics at play, such as no in-app purchasing on Kindle.

  • **Globally, the PC is still the most popular eBook device, but eReaders win in the US and UK. (According to this summary of a 2012 report).

  • Useful functions of the book?

     Persistence, archive-ability

    Figure 3 Don’t let your scholarly works/tools end up all, like, 404

    The above screenshot is one of the sights I saw when looking for PreE – the post book research environment mentioned by Liu. All the researchers at our symposium should be worrying about this. How are you going to preserve all your works, tools and experiments?

    Preservation?

    When I raised preservation as an issue, Jason Nelson said (more or less):

    Don’t obsess about preserving everything. Build things that people love – and they’ll work to preserve.

    Good point – but don’t lose sight of the value of a professional portfolio (and not everyone’s a rock-star internet poet like Jason :).

    eBooks are little web sites

    • HTML has more or less ‘won’ as the basis for most eBook formats.

    • EPUB is the standard. A book is essentially a (complicated) zipped-up website.

    • Beware of licensing/platform traps like the iBooks authoring application.

    • See the JISC EPUB project, on which I worked in 2011.

    • Think about how to design things and interfaces to things that are driven by declarative markup (ie – be explict first, delightful second)

    What about apps? Games?

    –  see Jason Nelson –

    Potential projects?

    I figured there might be postgrads and others at the symposium interested in where to direct their bookish work here’s a list from the technical perspective.

    Arising from the JISC EPUB project

    Recommendations for further work:

    1. Provide rich search tools for individual collections of ebooks

    2. Tools for generating or traversing ebook citations

    3. Development of a pilot to produce ebooks with linked-data content*

    4. Native EPUB output for Microsoft Word or Open Office

    5. LaTeX to EPUB 3/MathML

    6. Ereading systems with scholarly annotation systems

    7. Community resources for individual scholars wishing to epublish

    8. Aggregate resources for digital conversion for small scholarly presses

    9. Maximize use of orphan works

    10. Community resources for institutions with digital collections

    Think about separating data from presentation

    To finish, I tried to show a little of what is possible with declarative semantically-marked up HTML5, as one potential means to create new bookish things that might last.

    • Think about how to separate content from presentation and ‘engine’. (Might not be possible in some avant-garde experiments, but there are usually ways).

    • Consider standards-based experiments like this one from Tim Sheratt.

    Conclusion

    Well, there isn’t a conclusion really as these are just notes but I’m sure that continued work led by Anna and Maria and the Writing and Society Research Centre will be critically important to UWS, seeing as we’re the first Australian university to give Every New Student a Free iPad.

    Anon. 2012. “Album.” Wikipedia, the Free Encyclopedia. http://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=Album&oldid=526533373.

    Drucker, J. 2010. “Graphesis: Visual Knowledge Production and Representation.” Poetess Archive Journal 2 (1): 1–50.

    Liu, Alan. 2009. “The End of the End of the Book: Dead Books, Lively Margins, and Social Computing.” http://hdl.handle.net/2027/spo.act2080.0048.404.



    [1] There was one aspect of Jason’s work which I can’t talk about here which I think will make a fantastic online case study in research data archiving. I’m going to suggest it to the eResearch and repository staff at Griffith.