Monday, October 08, 2007

The Book and the Browser

Ben Vershbow and co. at the Institute for the Future of the Book (aka if:book) are soliciting comments for a project they're calling "The Really Modern Library." The idea seems to be to try to think about the new social/material networks that come (or maybe don't come) with digitization of analog texts. Or:

This project is animated by a strong belief that it is the network, more than the simple conversion of atoms to bits, that constitutes the real paradigm shift inherent in digital communication. Therefore, a central question of the Really Modern Library project and competition will be: how does the digital network change our relationship with analog objects? What does it mean for readers/researchers/learners to be in direct communication in and around pieces of media? What should be the *social* architecture of a really modern library?

Here is a thought I had. Most of the discussion of reading electronic documents has focused on either the process of digitization itself or the form factor: book readers, e-paper, or whatever.

But it seems to me that the real problem is that we've never had a killer client app to handle electronic documents on the scale of the book. Basically, we read text in four different kinds of apps: web browsers, PDF readers, text editors, and word processors. Maybe you use an image editor or viewer to read scanned documents. But that's it. None of those apps are primarily designed for viewing books, and most are downright bad at it. Adobe's Digital Editions reader is marginally better in terms of the interface, but it's still pretty limited. And none offer the kind of dynamic, peer-to-peer networking or the rich graphic experience that Miro or Joost or even iTunes offers for other media. Partly this has to do with technical limitations of that kind of software -- but the rest might be explained by the fact that all of those applications bring with them their own baggage in the way of the social/material networks that come with them.

So let's imagine what a really good book reading client might look like. It would have to have a browing interface more like Joost than a library card catalog. It would have to have at least as much interactivity in the way of comments, social interaction, and a recommendation engine as the Amazon store, Google Documents, and Wikipedia combined, with the resources of the existing search-engine and scholarly databases. It would have to plug into course management software, so this material could be used for study and scholarly collaboration in and out of the classroom in a local context. (You don't want to open up your students' writing or your paper-in-progress to the world, at least just yet.)

And it should be scalable. This brings us back to the problem of the form factor, i.e., what kinds of devices you're going to use to read these documents. At the All Things Digital conference earlier this year, Bill Gates, Steve Jobs, Walt Mossberg, and Kara Swisher got into a discussion of the emerging form factors for personal computing. Gates (I think) broke it down this way: you have the four-foot experience in your living room, the portable computer (either a laptop or tablet), a pocket device (a phone or PDA), and some kind of desktop machine/hub like you would have at your work.

Reading books on a pocket device is problematic, at least on something as small as most phones are now. I can see some kind of paperback-sized portable that you could read text and do crosswords or sudoku on. And definitely you want people to be able to work on their desktops and laptops, which is where most of us digest our information and do digital work.

But I think you also want to have not only the larger living room experience, but the classroom/seminar experience, or the Library of Congress experience. That requires a much larger screen, or even a dedicated machine, and a client that's up to the task. I don't want to read the Book of Kells on my phone. I want to go to the library, get into the reading room, and dig into it on a thirty-inch podium screen, or blow it up on a sixty-inch projector, and juxtapose or swap between the original document and annotations or bibliographical material or critical texts or art images, photos, or video, or other primary sources as easily as I can switch between apps on my Mac. And then I want to be able to download everything I've seen and all the notes I've made onto my laptop or jump drive or whatever, so I can continue to work on it at home. Oh, and I also want to have the material texts right next to me whenever possible -- the illuminated manuscript, the boxes of Ezra Pound's letters, or the musty binding and palimpsest of marginalia of a pirated edition of a Renaissance play.

Most people are not going to be able to have the need or to afford that kind of equipment at home, and many would hardly ever use it primarily for books. This, I think, is the natural domain for the university, research library, and archive -- and maybe even the bookstore. In short, our existing repositories for books can continue to provide the best on-site access to the materials in their collection -- even as some of the walls of space and place and access start to come down.

What about you? What would your dream digital text-reading experience look like?

1 comment:

L. V. Mountweazel said...

Great thoughts. One of the problems, as I see it, is the inability to annotate and share. We still think of text documents as closed, when we need to start thinking along the lines of variability and collective intelligence.