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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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    Sunday, June 17, 2007

    "If it works, it's obsolete" - is the book obsolete?

    Readers will know that I am a fan of e-books: I teach courses on e-books, and on how libraries can manage collections of e-books; I am also - as previous entries here will attest - a fan of the social or networked book.

    But a posting in The Millions, Ride the Shuffle: The Institute for the Future of the Book, set me wondering. I have often made the point that with few-to-no user studies, publishers publish, and libraries subscribe to, e-books largely as an act of faith [there are use studies on the way: see SuperBook]. There are any number of obstacles that stand in the way of the complete acceptance of e-books in the near future, not the least the issue of reading from the screen and, in the absence of affordable e-book readers, the need to have a laptop plugged in, as well as the tired, old read-in-the-bath / curl-up-in-bed problem! No one really believes in a paperless society anytime soon.

    So does The Institute for the Future of the Book really believe in, as The Millions says:
    "the act of reading, and publishing, to directly respond to the nature of social interaction. We live in a networked world, so there is no reason why books shouldn't be fully networked landscapes of social interaction"
    or isn't it more likely that, without the big publishers on board, the networked book will be nothing more than a fadist's fad, a toy for a few enthusiasts? Certainly, each social book will collect a coterie of fans, but publication - the communication of information (or content) to the public - will never happen in any real sense. Some networked books may subsequently be taken up by a publisher who understands that the free, pre-publication version will act as publicity for the print book, but each print book instantly becomes a sort of archived, trapped-in-time curio.

    The Millions suggest that the Institute is following in the steps of McLuhan - "emphasis on the medium rather than the content" - but we have to remember that at an intellectual and rational level the message is what matters. The medium may be more obvious - the physical or virtual carrier of the message without which there would be no communication of that message, but it is just a tool, an environment to grow and nurture the message. Their software, Sophie, turns authors into moderators and readers into authors - neat trick - but is this really what either wants?

    What research is the Institute undertaking to learn how society wants publishing to change? As far as I can understand from their mission statement:
    "The printed page is giving way to the networked screen. The Institute for the Future of the Book seeks to chronicle this shift, and impact its development in a positive direction"
    ... they are assuming a shift from paper to screen, and determined to make it happen in the best possible way (whatever that is). All evidence (from libraries and bookshops) would seem to suggest that the public is pretty happy with the current paper medium for its messages.

    Of course, without innovators and inventors who have the vision... we might not have paper either!

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