Contexts for Electronic Book Research

1. Audience
2. Interface and Design
3. Form and Content

Ray Siemens (CA) – Sturm und Drang, Sound and Fury? E-reading Essentials in a Time of Change and unFixity from network cultures on Vimeo.

More than half of all people living in developed countries make use of computers and the internet to read newspaper pieces, magazine and journal articles, electronic copies of books, and other similar materials. The next generation of adults already recognizes the electronic medium as their chief source of textual information. Our knowledge repositories increasingly favour digital products over the print resources that have been their mainstay for centuries. And those professionals who produce and convey textual information have as a chief priority activities associated with making such information available electronically in ways that meet the standards of quality, content, and functionality that have evolved over half a millennium of print publication.

The movement toward the use of the digital medium is an obvious one, with clear benefits associated with the production, dissemination and reception of the record of human experience, as well as the ultimate societal impact of these processes on our knowledge-based society. But, for all the good we perceive, we also realize that there is much still to know about this new media form. Such knowledge is necessary to the end of ensuring that we make the best use of all that the digital has to offer us.

Questions arise for those who are most expert in this area. What do we really know about the ways in which we interact with these new texts that replace the print artifact and re-present to us the knowledge and experience of the past, as well as deliver the direct-to-digital record of the present? Do we understand the ways in which we interact with these knowledge objects, and the information they contain — and do we understand the impact that the confluence of media formats in these digital objects has on our use of them, such that we may best facilitate interaction with the new digital artifact?

In short, there is much that we still need to learn about the new knowledge machine presented to us by the computer and its digital resources. More specifically, there is at the moment a real need to understand the principles involved, so that we may address the need in our community — and the society we serve — to best interact with the digital manifestations of those representations of the objects recording human experience.

Comprised of researchers and stakeholders at the forefront of computing in the humanities, text analysis, information studies, usability and interface design — those who are best-poised to understand the nature of the human record as it intersects with the computer — this working group is working to identify the central issues relating to the digitization of the human record and to act on that identification, to the end of:

  • understanding and describing the basic principles of humanistic interaction with knowledge objects (digital and analog alike),
  • articulating core strategies for the design of humanistic knowledge objects, especially electronic books, based on this understanding, and
  • suggesting basic principles necessary for evaluating and implementing current technologies, and exploring future ones.

Possibilities for human-computer interaction and the electronic book may be examined from a range of interrelated perspectives, which we approach in several essential ways:

  • via a process that seeks to identify, quantify and evaluate print and electronic books in terms of their features and uses,
  • via a process that explores the material, symbolic and formal aspects of the book, toward the end of computational modeling, and
  • via a process of prototyping computational models and simulations of the book, both literal models and metaphoric.

Our work is a natural extension of well-recognized and innovative work by Canadian researchers in the area. It not only builds on important accomplishments, but also works toward making significant contributions to the digital humanities. Canada is well-established as a world leader in the digital humanities, with:

  • internationally-recognized professional associations such as the Society for Digital Humanities / Société pour l’étude des médias interactifs (SDH/SEMI, formerly COCH/COSH, CFHSS society #255),
  • research networks such as the Text Analysis Portal for Research group (TAPoR; at McMaster U, UQAM, U New Brunswick, U Toronto, U Alberta, and U Victoria),
  • communities which have supported annual conferences in the digital humanities (SDH/SEMI, at the CFHSS Congress) and text analysis (the Canadian Symposium on Text Analysis [CaSTA]),
  • a summer institute (the Digital Humanities / Humanities Computing Summer Institute, U Victoria), and
  • related research gatherings such as that of the Text Analysis Developers Alliance (TADA, McMaster U) and the interactiveMatters research cluster (McMaster U, Concordia U, U Calgary, and U Victoria).

Canada is also home to a number of high-profile research initiatives related to the understanding and representation of book-oriented materials in electronic form. These initiatives include the Internet Shakespeare Editions (U Victoria), the Orlando Project (U Alberta, U Guelph), the Public Knowledge Project (U British Columbia), and Nouvelles Experiences de la Textualité (NT2, UQAM), among many notable others.

1. Audience

Perspectives on audience and the electronic book derive from a number of disciplines, and debates around reading in hypermedia environments often become mired in philosophical disagreements among these disciplines regarding what constitutes a satisfactory reading experience — or, put another way, what constitutes a usable text. For instance, early empirical research on reading hypertext from the perspective of interface design and software engineering tended to concern itself with delineating best practices to prevent reader disorientation and cognitive overload in complex, highly networked, multimedia environments. Navigational supports such as site overviews, as well as hierarchical structures, were promoted as a means to improved usability (Foss, 1989; Leventhal, Teasley, Instone, Rohlman, and Farhat, 1993; Astleitner and Leutner, 1995; Kim, H., & Hirtle, S. C., 1995; Rouet and Levonen, 1996).

A sustained conversation between the fields of scholarly editing and empirical reader studies is long overdue, especially since scholarly editing inevitably involves a process of modelling the types of readers of an edition, and the types of reading experiences they will have with various kinds of edited text and annotations. The reader studies component of our project is in part concerned with how scholars come to trust or distrust digital resources – a question of major and perhaps unexpected importance to digital scholarly editors (Best, 2004), just as the socially constructed trustworthiness of print has been an important research question for scholars in book history (Johns, 1998). Nevertheless, the reader in much editorial theory often remains an abstract and even mystified figure, even though readers’ habits are often invoked to justify certain ways of presenting the text. Decisions such as modernizing spelling versus retaining the original orthography, conflating texts into a single ideal form versus presenting multiple versions, providing one kind of annotation but not another, and silently emending an apparent error versus leaving the text unchanged all serve to configure the relationship between reader, editor, and text (see the articles in Best 1998, esp. those by Werstine, Anne Lancashire, Ian Lancashire, and Siemens). Reader studies provides a formal vocabulary to describe these relationships, an important task for textual scholars given the capability of digital editions to reach new audiences, and given the need for digital scholarly editors to engage with interface design and usability.

2. Interface and Design

The design of computer interfaces for researchers working with electronic texts requires a combination of specialist areas of inquiry, including the ethnographic study of information-seeking behaviors, diagnostic performance evaluation of existing interfaces, and iterative design and usability study of new design prototypes (Ruecker, 2003). Some interfaces are intended to provide researchers and others with access to collections of materials. Others aim to facilitate research tasks once an appropriate subset of materials has been selected by the user. One of our goals is to bring together expertise in the necessary areas in order to inform the design of new affordances (Gibson, 1979) for people working with digital texts.

An affordance is an opportunity for action, and the design of a new digital affordance provides people with a tool that was not previously available. An example of a widely successful new digital affordance is the cut-and-paste function, which had not been available to writers using typewriters, but was adopted wholesale by everyone using word processors. As soon as the technology was able to support it, people learned that it was available, and a function that had not been possible became indispensable. An example of a new digital affordance that is not yet widely available is the dynamic table of contents (Ruecker, 2005), which would allow the reader to perform a variety of research tasks by interactively adding or subtracting content.

3. Form and Content

A key concern for those interested in the representation and re-presentation of texts in any form has been whether content exists independently and abstractly of its representation by an interface, or whether it exists only concretely, as the sum of its instantiations. One of the problems evident in the field today is the document-mindedness of ideas inherited from (mostly literary) hypertext theorists such as George Landow, who speak of content as links and lexias but almost never as objects, classes, and instances. On the other hand, the field also contains many examples of idealistic approaches to content. One example is the Text Encoding Initiative (TEI), an international project developing guidelines for encoding machine-readable electronic texts, with the aim of facilitating activities such as text analysis and sophisticated searching. While the TEI is well suited to encoding print objects (for example, a novel), it becomes confused when dealing with ontologically complex texts like plays, which are neither completely documents nor events. As F.W. Bateson famously phrased the problem, “if the Mona Lisa is in the Louvre, where [is] Hamlet?” (qtd. in Greetham, p. 342) And if an edition of Hamlet is an interface between the readership and the content, where then does the content begin?