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    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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    Monday, June 12, 2006

    What is a book? What is an e-book

    if:book has just posted a discussion on 'What is a book?" As I have proposed a definition for an e-book and frequently discussed the issues surrounding definitions of 'book' and 'e-book', I thought that I should post a response.

    The legacy: Definition(s) of a book
    The 1989 second edition of the OED seems to have covered all angles: a book is a “written or printed treatise or series of treatises, occupying several sheets of paper or other substance fastened together so as to compose a material whole.” It goes on to explain that, “[i]n this wide sense, referring to all ages and countries, a book comprehends a treatise written on any material … put together in any portable form, e.g. that of a long roll, or of separate leaves, hinged, strung, stitched, or pasted together.” This is not enough for the definition, which goes on to confirm modern usage:
    a treatise occupying numerous sheets or leaves fastened together at one edge called the back, so as to be opened at any particular place, the whole being protected by binding or covers of some kind.
    The United Nations Educational, Social and Cultural Organization defines a book - slightly quixotically - as a "a non-periodical printed publication of at least 49 pages, exclusive of the cover pages, published in the country and made available to the public” (UNESCO, 1964). The emphasis is on the physical entity. Indeed, Noam Chomsky (2000 p.20) wrote:
    Books are concrete objects. We can refer to them as such (‘the book weighs five pounds’), or from an abstract perspective (‘who wrote the book?’; ‘he wrote the book in his head, but then forgot about it’); or from both perspectives simultaneously (‘the book he wrote weighed five pounds’, ‘the book he is writing will weigh at least five pounds if it is ever published’).
    In 2001, a virtual conference was hosted by Bibliothèque publique d´information: Text-e functioned through a number of online debates, several on the nature of an e-book. Robert Casati began one debate with the question: “The philosopher may wonder: what is a book? This is an ontological problem: the book is at once a physical and a mental entity” and Umberto Eco responded to a question on what distinguishes a book from any other form of information by suggesting that it is the reader’s “psychological mechanisms of attention” which vary between a book and other read forms.

    One significant attribute of a book is its content. Wilson (2000), in a discussion on information needs, noted that the word ‘information’ may be variously understood as the physical document, as channels of communication, or as the subject data contained in a document (or transmitted orally). Wilson’s term ‘subject data’ is interesting, bringing into play as it does the primacy of the content as – in terms of logic – the thing about which a judgement is made or which has attributes. We may say that the content (subject data) has physical attributes. The content is the reason that a physical document (in this case, a book) was constructed as a channel of communication. The subject or the defining essence of a book is the content, which has attributes that describe its physical presence.

    Definition(s) of an e-book
    Just as dictionaries have defined ‘book’, so too has at least one dictionary produced a definition of ‘e-book’. The OED published a draft definition in 2001 which did little to clear up one of the main debates: is the e-book only an e-book in its physical entity, that is, when it is given substance by an e-book reader, or is it simply the content?
    A hand-held electronic device on which the text of a book can be read. Also: a book whose text is available in an electronic format for reading on such a device or on a computer screen; (occas.) a book whose text is available only or primarily on the Internet.
    In 2003, the International Encyclopedia of Information and Library Science updated its definition continuing to use the book-analogy approach, although this definition does not seem to be widely known:
    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. (Landoni, 2003 168)
    This is an excellent definition. In 2003, Esposito also attempted to clarify the situation but had to acknowledge that his suggestion was unlikely to be adopted.
    “As we begin to publish some books in electronic form, the print package gets tossed out and only the content remains. The content of such a package, however, is also called a book, and that is the kind of book I wish to discuss … Some interested parties now use the term etext to distinguish the content from its package. This would be more helpful if enough people subscribed to the convention.”
    Garrod and Weller say, “It is important to distinguish between digital content and the technology which enables a reader to access this content.” Their own definition –
    “the term ebook tends to mean actual content – i.e. books that are available in electronic form, and which can be downloaded from the Internet and read on a variety of hardware platforms with the aid of reading software” (Garrod & Weller, 2004)
    – like someother definitions, this appears to exclude books written for the medium, and focuses only on print books that have been digitized or replicated electronically. My own, wordier, definition is:
    Any piece of electronic text that is recognisably ‘book-like’, regardless of size or composition, but excluding journal or serial publications, made available electronically (or optically) for any device (handheld or desk-bound) that includes a screen. (Armstrong, Edwards & Lonsdale, 2002)
    The essential element is that an e-book is for reading or using on the screen: the computer is not a delivery mechanism for subsequent printing and reading; the definition is not accepting of Print-on-Demand nor audio books, which have been with us for some years, and should not now be considered e-books.

    Armstrong, Chris; Edwards, Louise and Lonsdale, Ray (2002) Virtually There: E-books in UK academic libraries. Program 36 (4) 216-227.
    Chomsky, Noam (2000) Explaining Language Use. In Chomsky, Noam (2000) New horizons in the study of language and mind. London: Penguin
    Esposito, Joseph J. (2003) The processed book. First Monday 8 (3). Available at:
    Garrod, Penny and Weller, Jane. (2004) Ebooks in UK Public Libraries: where are we now and the way ahead. An issue paper from the Networked Services Policy Task Group. Bath: UKOLN, July 2004. Available at:
    Landoni, Monica (2003) Electronic Books. In John Feather and Paul Sturges (eds)International Encyclopedia of Information and Library Science. London: Routledge. 168-171.
    UNESCO (1964) Recommendation concerning the International Standardization of Statistics Relating to Book Production and Periodicals. Available at: PRINTPAGE&URL_SECTION=201.html
    Wilson, T.D. (2000) Recent trends in user studies: action research and qualitative methods. Information Research, 5 (3) Available at:

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