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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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    Monday, October 22, 2007

    What will a book be? What CAN a book be?

    In an upcoming article (Journal of Librarianship and Information Scicence, 2008), I have suggested a "definitive definition" of the term e-book. Mostly because I encounter so many misunderstandings, but also because there seems to be no accepted definition. My definition is:

    Any content that is recognisably ‘book-like’, regardless of size, origin or composition, but excluding serial publications, made available electronically for reference or reading on any device (handheld or desk-bound) that includes a screen.

    While reading an entry - ted nelson is still on the job - in if:book, I had pause to wonder whether that phrase of mine, "book-like" was such a good idea, whether it would withstand the tests of time.
    Ted Nelson's ideas are essential to engage with if we're thinking seriously about how we compose and read using computers. His central thesis (which is strangely echoed by Gary Frost's comments on this blog) is that from Xerox PARC on, electronic documents have been designed to mimic their paper antecedents. In Nelson's view, this is where everything went wrong: electronic documents could and should behave entirely differently from paper ones.
    Of course, the final suggestion is mildly contentious - because paper books have proved very good at what they do: transferring information from the writer or writers to the readers. And, as yet, we have no way of knowing whether a new-model book - whether an e-book which mimics its paper parent or something completely new like a 3-D virtual model of a text can even approach the same level of success. The current SuperBook and JISC e-Book Observatory projects at UCL are designed to discover just this for this generation of e-books.

    The if:book entry goes on to show some images of Ted Nelson's ideas, and one of the links in the right-hand column takes you to a part of its 'Gamer Theory' e-book site, which in turn leads to TextArc:
    by W. Bradford Paley. A TextArc is a visual represention of a text—the entire text (twice!) on a single page. A combination of an index, concordance, and summary; it uses the viewer's eye to help uncover meaning.
    If you click the "Open TextArc in a window (recommended)" an interactive Java representation of the Gamer Theory book opens. The big questions are:
    • Do you get more from this than from reading straight text?
    • Is this what books should aspire to?
    and perhaps, "Is your computer screen big enough?" My view - at this particular point in time - is that we have a long way to go before books will be like this; before users - strike that, I meant readers - will accept that kind of communication. It's very exciting; and my view, also, is that the e-book should evolve into something on the screen that does more than ape (often badly) a printed book, but there is a lot of work to be done before such virtual books or plastic texts become common place. Much of it will be to do with visual semiotics and visual rhetoric.

    And so - for now and for the near future - I think that those who want a definition for 'e-book' can safely accept the term 'book-like', and know what they (and I) mean!

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