The Uses of Books

1. The Uses of Books
2. The Uses of e-Books
3. Digital Archives, Sustainability, and Access

1. The Uses of Books

Writing is the most powerful tool invented by humankind because it is a tool of the mind. The history of the book is the history of how people have shaped the intellectual tool of writing in order to make it more efficient, more versatile, and easier to use. In Greece, before 600 BC, there was no clear decision regarding whether writing should go from left to right or from right to left (or even boustrophedon, where the direction of writing followed the path of the plough in a field and lines had to be read in alternating directions). Romans read aloud, or were read aloud to by a slave.

Progressively, the text departed from the linearity of the spoken word and became organized in a visual way, giving more control to the reader. A major turning point was the invention of the codex in the first century AD. But, though the codex was a vastly more efficient medium for text, it took four centuries for it to completely replace the scroll and evolve from an essentially linear format to a tabular one, gradually giving the reader more control over the pace and form of reading.

Many incremental advances were necessary in order to make the book what it is today. In medieval monasteries, the monks in the scriptoria were to read silently in order to avoid distracting their colleagues. This helped to shape the book as a more visual entity adapted to efficient reading. Reading itself was for many centuries mainly conceived of as a ruminatio (pondering at length). In the eighteenth century, a new relationship to reading appeared, making it legitimate to browse through vast amounts of reading material. This form of “extensive reading” became pervasive with the advent of newspapers and magazines.

The history of reading shows that the medium used for displaying text is important, because it determines which operations are easy for the reader to perform. Also, it puts varying amounts of emphasis on the visibility of the text and on the readers’ interactions with it. In this regard, text is the nexus of a fundamental tension. On one hand, it is a product of language which is of limited duration, and which depends upon a syntactic organization of the words. On the other hand, since it is a visual entity, text may also surpass its linear bounds and play upon the resources offered by layout, typography and colors in order to create other types of meaningful events.

2. The Uses of e-Books

The discussion above outlines a range of features pertaining to books and e-books. Tangibility is more strongly associated with the book as a physical artifact, while hybridity is more strongly associated with digital texts. Browsability, searchability, and referenceablility are also dramatically enhanced in digital media. Examining this list of features, it is clear that e-books are particularly well suited to the needs of researchers (information seekers and those engaged in text analysis). It is not surprising, then, that research and development efforts related to e-books in the humanities have tended in the direction of developing searchable digital archives and databases, establishing a method of encoding digital texts to ensure compatibility among archives, establishing a new knowledge economy related to scholarly electronic publication, and so on.

Other research areas concern the affordances of digital media for collaborative knowledge production, and for the literary arts. The first of these, and one that is less thoroughly scrutinized than others, collaborative knowledge production, is increasingly facilitated by various emerging forms of social software, such as wikis and weblogs. The most obvious example is Wikipedia, a popular web-based free-content encyclopedia that maintains an open policy regarding contributions. Wikipedia’s model for contribution clearly interrogates notions of authorship and intellectual property rooted in print culture. It is worth noting that this is not a new model: it is one that was displaced by the formalized diffusion of academic writing, which saw its genesis in seventeenth-century Europe. Before our current methods of inquiry and knowledge diffusion were shaped, notes Siemens (2002), knowledge exchange and the advancement of scholarship was facilitated in large part by personal dialogue and the circulation of private manuscripts and correspondence, with the emphasis being on “ensuring that valuable ideas circulated and became part of growing, documented, bodies of knowledge” (Siemens, 2002, p. 3). Siemens suggests that the argument for proceeding ad fontes (going back to the sources) is compelling in suggesting that we might turn again “to earlier models of scholarly exchange . . . and consider their possible relationship, even if only metaphorically, to what we now refer to as ‘new’ types of scholarly exchange that are made possible by the electronic medium” (p. 3). The impact of such a model for future knowledge production and diffusion activities in the humanities should be examined.

The second research area referenced above, electronic literature, refers to “works with important literary aspects that take advantage of the capabilities and contexts provided by the stand-alone or networked computer” (ELO, 2006, ¶2). Electronic literature includes genres such as hypertext fiction, reactive poetry, and blog novels. Older forms, such as hypertext fiction, have their roots in text adventure games (such as Will Crowther’s 1975 Adventure and Infocom’s Zork) and Bantam’s Choose Your Own Adventure series of children’s books. Emerging genres such as reactive poetry, on the other hand, intermingle literary arts and multimedia design. Often presented as Flash files, works in this latter class employ animated images and text accompanied by sound, in an effort to produce visually dynamic pieces. We will study further the nature of these emerging genres, and how readers interact with them.

3. Digital Archives, Sustainability, and Access

Basic strategies of preservation, upkeep, and ongoing access in the print medium have changed little since the arrival of the mechanically-produced book, though the details of those systems have undergone changes with the advent of technological developments that enabled certain strategies. Change has also been driven by need: some examples are the emergence of classification systems at the turn of the century to handle the exponentially-increasing numbers of books, and the movement toward ‘universal’ libraries and national collections.

Many aspects of these basic strategies are transportable to the electronic medium, but most require modification to take into account three things:

  • the pace of technological change, which manifests itself, for example, in old electronic materials that already require special technological considerations to remain functional;
  • the fact that electronic materials are much more malleable than those in print (so versioning becomes a more complex issue); and
  • new basic functionality and interoperation possibilities that computation allows us to consider and enact on electronic materials – all, again, from the perspective of the user.

From the perspectives of sustainability and access, databases are deploying a number of economic models for support and access. The following examples should be investigated in terms of their viability for the humanities projects under consideration here:

A. MEMBERSHIP MODEL: JSTOR, which provides database access to journal archives, was established with major Mellon Foundation funding, and is sustained on a membership basis. Memberships are available for institutions alone, with libraries and schools paying an initiation fee along with an annual fee, based on size. Access is restricted to individuals who belong to a member institution.

B. INSTITUTIONAL SPONSORSHIP MODEL: Representative Poetry Online is, in good measure, the work of a local champion, Ian Lancashire, with sponsorship from University of Toronto’s Office of the Provost, the Faculty of Arts and Science, the Department of English and the Library (which hosts the database). This is seen as a public service, and the contents are open-access.

C. INSTITUTIONAL SPONSOR / MAJOR GRANT MODEL: The principal archive in physics,, is sustained by funding from Cornell, which hosts it as a matter of public service, offsetting some expenses with grant funding from NSF. The contents are open-access.

D. SUBSCRIPTION / OPEN ACCESS MODEL: Highwire Press, operated by the Stanford University Library, provides access to close to a 1,000 journals principally on the basis of personal or institutional subscriptions to individual journal titles. Journals provide around a million articles free of charge, some offering immediate open access, others using the model of delayed open access. The delay between for-pay publication and free release runs from 6 to 24 months.

E. ENDOWMENT MODEL: The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy is seeking donations to generate sufficient funds to manage the continuing development of the project: <>. The contents are open access.

F. COOPERATIVE MODEL: Something of an ideal, yet to be fully realized, that combines A and E, insofar as membership among principally interested libraries comes together to support and contribute in-kind to sustaining a cooperative database that provides open access to all.