Future of the book is not a "container question"

Last week I was asked via email to comment on the future of the book for an article and since it’s a topic that I’ve taken a lot of interest in lately, I thought I’d try and respond. Here’s my 2 cents on the subject…

The future of reading has been a hot topic these days. With the launch this year of the Kindle DX, Google’s partnership with Sony reader, Barnes & Nobles e-book development and the mounting rumors of the Apple tablet, there is a lot of conversation about how the book is changing.

When I hear folks talk about the future of the book and wonder how libraries will thrive in this new digital age, I can’t help but think that we’re being short sighted when we only talk about the digital book’s impact to reading and the miss the greater opportunity that this format can provide, which is the networked creation and sharing of new knowledge.

Reading at its core is actually a consumption activity that at it’s best is a solitary pursuit. When we read, we consume and amass someone else’s knowledge, ideas, and stories. For many of us it’s an escape from our own day-to-day by providing the ability to jump inside someone else’s head.

The jump from print to digital actually doesn’t change any of this. However, when I think about the book as digital format from a larger perspective, I see a much bigger picture unfolding. Not only is knowledge no longer bound to its physical format, it’s no longer bound as medium designed primarily for consumption. With digital formats offering the ability to connect with other readers (consumers you might even say) over networked platforms, the consumption of knowledge can actually become a participatory activity resulting in the creation and sharing of new knowledge. is one the first attempts I’ve seen at creating this new type of participatory ‘reading’ by providing users with the ability to insert comments and annotations anywhere (even at sentence and word level) within the book. And in addition to leaving your observations and comments behind for others to read, you can also connect with other readers real-time or create a private group to limit your conversations to a close circle of friends. When I think about the possibilities that this new networked format creates, I envision the ability to not overlay and compare fan fiction with the original, but to also participate in the creation of new genre’s like crowdsourced novels (see James Patterson’s newest venture AirBourne, for an example).

Indeed, the conversational quality of books takes on new meaning when the content is unbound and as the battles continue on in the race for the perfect ebook container, I can’t help but think we’ll be loosing the war if all we focus on is the impact of the digital book as it relates to consumption activities and don't take a look at where libraries can really add value in the bigger picture.

Libraries need to think about impact of the ebook not from the aspect of providing access to materials in digital format or as containers to merely support reading, but from the aspect of what it means to support the sharing and creation of new knowledge from published knowledge that in the digital format can be easily unbound. I know that supporting this type of shift is not only huge, it's also contains many unknowns and challenges. But if we're not thinking about how to support "the book" in its unbound state, you can bet with today's exploding information economy that someone else is.

What are your thoughts on the "unbound, networked book"?

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gg said...

I'd like to see digital readers kept at reference desks someday. Many interlibrary loans we do are for books that are public domain. I'd love to be able to hand a library user a tablet with a public domain title on it that I downloaded as they stood there. How great would that be?

Batarang said...

I think the format is very important as far as adoption is concerned, but I agree that the possibilities for people to connect and find information are where its at.

While its nothing more than a pedantic exercise, being able to choose fifty books and compare how many times the authors use the word "finally" could be interesting to someone in a WolframAlpha kinda way. Also it would be useful if copying and pasting from a book automatically included the bibliographic info embedded into the text.

Comparing five different versions of the Bible would become a lot easier, too. They could be annotated with comments from scholars throughout history right alongside the "average joe" interpretations. No longer would you have to discuss a particular passage on a separate forum and then wait for people to walk over to their dusty tomes and look it up or search for it on Google. The discussion would take place within the "confines" of the digital book.

Folks that work in libraries will be instrumental in assisting the public with these technologies. Research using digital books will become easier, and yet those not familiar with the new tech could find it more difficult to navigate. As its been discussed at length on other websites around the world, the evolution of the digital interface is, perhaps, the most crucial component of the e-book and its ability to connect users/consumers with the vast amounts of content that will be floating through the internet.