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    Location: Aberystwyth, Wales, United Kingdom

    I am the owner and managing director of Information Automation Limited (IAL), a company that specialises in research, consultancy and training for the information profession. We are particularly interested in all forms of electronic information resources (e-journals, e-books, etc) and I teach a course in electronic publishing at the Department of Information Studies in Aberystwyth. Drilling down still further(!), my interests centre on the quality and evaluation of electronic information, and in the thinking that underpins activities in library and information science.


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    Friday, May 26, 2006

    The evolution of e-books in a social world

    Whenever I speak on e-books, I point out that they have been with us from the 1970s and that the Gutenberg Project out-of-copyright e-texts, made available for free, were the first e-books. Since then things have moved apace. We have moved through novels, monographs and reference works, we have seen born-digital and digitised, we have moved from e-books readers to desktop and back to a new generation of e-book readers; and e-books have evolved! Oh yes, e-books have evolved: think "networked books"; think "wiki-books"; think "platform books"; think "blooks"; think experimental books"; think "social books".

    Starting with books designed for virtual space in the 1990s, simply known as 'born-digital' to distinguish them from the born-on-paper and digitised copies, there was little to distinguish some such e-books from web sites. Monica Landoni's definition in the 2003 International Encyclopedia of Information and Library Science was perhaps their saving:
    The result of integrating classical book structure, or rather the familiar concept of a book, with features that can be provided within an electronic environment is referred to as an electronic book (or e-book), which is intended as an interactive document that can be composed and read on a computer.
    It is the definition that I use all the time - if it smells like a book...

    And so to an evolutionary process, which almost certainly hasn't finished yet, but which, in moving so swiftly forwards, presages exciting times for both publishers and readers of e-books. Lest you worry about a paperless world, I refer readers back a couple of posts to my entry here on Books and e-Books, which ended:
    Paper-based books will neither vanish from shelves nor cease production. They will endure.

    e-Books will flourish and serve a parallel purpose. e-Books will empower both authors and readers through granular, ‘Web 2.0’ access facilities.
    The first born digital e-books are epitomised by City Sites: Multimedia Essays on New York and Chicago, 1870s-1930s. It is noteworthy because of its use of the medium: it includes in its virtual pages sound clips, images, moving images, and pop-up annotations and citations. But it is most interesting because it offers several different ways of moving through the text. Linear reading has moved on to hyperlinked snippets and topical pathways which move from essay to eassy as they follow a particular theme. Wikipedia started in 2001 and is perhaps the next great move forward in e-books. It is a great and successful experiment in social book development. Anyone can add to its pages and we are all editors of existing content. There has been significant debate over recent months about the quality of Wikipedia content - but it seems to come out as good as (if not better than, according to some writers) Britannica. Professor Lawrence Lessig first wrote Code and Other Laws of Cyberspace in 1999.
    After five years in print and five years of changes in law, technology, and the context in which they reside, Code needs an update. But rather than do this alone, Professor Lessig is using [a] wiki to open the editing process to all, to draw upon the creativity and knowledge of the community. This is an online, collaborative book update; a first of its kind... Once the project nears completion, Professor Lessig will take the contents of this wiki and ready it for publication. The resulting book, Code v.2, will be published in late 2005 by Basic Books.
    The social element of the Web - as also seen in social bookmarking (such as Flickr, Connotea and Del.icio.us), as well as in Wikipedia itself, is extending to academic texts, where authors are acknowledging that remote experts may have valuable contributions to their own thought processes. Similarly, Mitchell Stephens says of Without Gods:
    The blog I am writing here, with the connivance of The Institute for the Future of the Book, is an experiment. Our thought is that my book on the history of atheism (eventually to be published by Carroll and Graf) will benefit from an online discussion as the book is being written. Our hope is that the conversation will be joined: ideas challenged, facts corrected, queries answered; that lively and intelligent discussion will ensue. And we have an additional thought: that the web might realize some smidgen of benefit through the airing of this process.
    More recently the proliferation of blogs has produced a new phenomenon: dubbed 'blooks', books written on blogs as a series of posts are an interesting experiment in iterative publishing. Journalist Richard Poynder's The Basement Interviews is built on a series of interviews with luminaries of open access. Readers are asked to pay US$8 for each interview they download and read, and the whole may be subsequently published as a paper-based book. A similar experiment comes from L Lee Lowe who is publishing a series of short stories for "young adults of all ages" on the Into the Lowelands blog. The stories are powerful and if any reader needs convincing that fiction can be read on the screen, 'Noise' will hold them gripped.

    All of which pretty well brings us up to the current year: 2006. And experiments that involve software and interfaces as well as societal involvement in communal texts. Joseph J Esposito has evolved The Platform Book - based on an earlier essay on "various aspects of the book in the digital era" and created using a Processed Book Operating System. Anyone can annotate the text as they read it - indeed, highlighting a phrase or word immediately causes a drop down menu with choices such as 'Create BookMark', 'Create Note', 'Create OutgoingLink' and 'Create BizVantage Topic'. Previously added annotations are signified by a boxed 'Note' in the right-hand margin. Moving further into the community, GAM3R 7H30RY by McKenzie Wark (? McK3n213 Wa8k ?) is an entirely new design and an experiment in the delivery of e-books. Once again supported by The Institute for the Future of the Book, GAM3R 7H30RY offers a reading experience designed for the screen as well as the opportunity for discussion with readers. The granular approach to the text means that screen real estate can be managed well and debate focusses on precise areas of content.

    And finally, a current experiment in uncontrolled social creativity: authorial mahem reminiscent of the folded-paper game children play - you draw the legs and fold the paper, she'll add a body and fold, he'll add a head, and when its all unfolded the resulting creature is like a centaur crossed with a griffin! The latest writing venture, Novel Twists, involves each of up to 250 authors in writing a single page. The subsequent page is bid for on eBay and the winner continues the story. At the beginning of May 2006, eight pages had been written. It will bring a new slant to creative writing courses, I suppose - although it may leave literature courses unaffected!

    And where will e-books go from here. Digitisation projects move forward at thousands of pages an hour, resulting in petabytes of text that can be searched, located, and - in some cases - viewed. These are not necessarily e-books; in many cases they are simply indexes: the content become the metadata as David Weinberger suggested at the end of 2005. There was a recent article entitled What do you do with a million Books? which expanded on the idea of the power of these huge collections. I have blogged on this already so will not repeat myself here - except to note that granular inter-linking may be a very powerful tool, but it may not be what the human race needs! The power of networks - the Web 2.0 - has to, must inevitably, influence the evolution of e-books. Already Oxford Reference Online and xreferplus offer collections of reference books which can be searched as one. My prediction for the evolutionary process is that the distinction between a book and a library, between the author and the critic, between the writer and the editor will all be eroded. In the virtual world content will loose its identity and knowledge will rise over text.

    Fortunately, when it all becomes too much, we will still be able to reach for a good book from the shelf, open it at the page you turned down last night, and read the printed word!

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