Reflecting on the Evolution of the Book

Book coverFor one of my classes I had to reflect on Kilgour’s The Evolution of the Book. These were the questions, followed by my answers.
1. How does Kilgour define the book? Is this definition too narrow or broad? What does his definition leave out?
2. Kilgour summarizes five requirements that enable a transition in the form of the book (p. 9, 2nd par.). Which requirements have currently been met that might signal the beginning of a shift to the “electronic book? Which requirements are still unsatisfied?
3. Kilgour explicitly states six criteria for the electronic book to satisfy current user requirements (p. 152). Do you agree or disagree with each of these criteria? Why?

1. How does Kilgour define the book? Is this definition too narrow or broad? What does his definition leave out?

Kilgour defines book on page one as a “storehouse of human knowledge intended for dissemination in the form of a portable artifact that contains arrangements of signs that contain information“.

I believe he unnecessarily broadened the meaning of the term compared to its traditional sense. Based on his definition a CD-ROM or a DVD would also constitute a book. In his treatise he includes e-books as books, therefore he washes together the display device and the content. Are portable computers and DVD-players books? Following his logic, the answer would be yes. I am not ready to accept it.

His definition is not specific enough in terms of scope of the “book”. “Storehouse” is too vague a term. For example the black leather jacket of a hardrocker, covered with badges of her favorite bands is portable, disseminates information and has an arrangement of signs. Is it a book?
Finally I don’t like the word “sign” in the definition. What of children books with pictures only. Or are pictures sign too? Have you seen Istvan Banyai’s book Zoom. It contains nothing else, but a sequence of images, each zooming out from the previous one. One of my favorite books, containing no “signs”.

2. Kilgour summarizes five requirements that enable a transition in the form of the book (p. 9, 2nd par.). Which requirements have currently been met that might signal the beginning of a shift to the “electronic book? Which requirements are still unsatisfied?

A more detailed version of the list starts in the penultimate line of page 5 and continues on page 6:
1. Societal need for information
2. Technological knowledge and experience
3. Organizational experience and capability
4. Capability of integrating a new form into existing information systems
5. Economic viability.

The only requirement fully present is the users’ need. The technology is not yet adequate enough. See the answers for question number 3, why. The issue of technology relates to the integration and cost effectiveness. The three will improve together. I am unclear about the requirement for new organizations. Certainly with new copyright models (such as GNU, copyleft or creative commons) and the wide use of (collaborating authoring of/on) the web the traditional publishing process changed. Is this what Kilgour referred to? I am not sure.

3. Kilgour explicitly states six criteria for the electronic book to satisfy current user requirements (p. 152). Do you agree or disagree with each of these criteria? Why?


Kilgour’s requirements:
1. its legibility should be better than that of the most legible books
2. its display should accommodate at minimum five hundred words printed on an average six-by-nine-inch book page
3. its size and weight should both be less than those of an average novel
4. it should be possible to hold, manipulate , and read with one hand
5. one-time cost should be less than the average price of a novel
6. it should be able to access text in any one of millions of databases anywhere and at any time.

I think Kilgour misses the importance of intra-text navigation. One of the advantages of the current format of the book is the ease one can jump around in the text. I can turn to any page in a book within a fraction of a second. The same kind of ease of navigation is necessary for the success of e-books. The advent the ebook format questions whether pagination is the most useful way of signifying sections of text. I doubt it for three reasons:
1. The hypertext nature of text makes linear sequencing obsolete.
2. The possible inclusion of multimedia elements in the ebook makes pagination irrelevant, e.g. for video or audio.
3. As the ebook is not in codex (or scroll) format its content could be displayed as one long scrolling column, or one endless line. (However for referencing purposes we need what Engelbart called “in-file addressability.”)
Despite these doubts I don’t have a better suggestion than using pagination. Do you?
I also think that ebook device makers need to give serious thought to the question of light. A big advantage of back-lit displays, such as blackberry, cellphone or laptop is that they can be used in the dark. This would help What Kilgour calls the “curl up in bed” factor. However extended use of backlit devices is strenuous on the eyes, because you are staring directly into the lightsource. When one reads a printed book the necessary light to do so is coming from other sources. The solution could be either a device where the user can turn on and off backlight or a kind of electronic paper that from a user’s perspective behaves like traditional paper.

Another point Kilgour is missing is the importance of standardization. One of the major reasons ebooks did not spread yet, I believe, is that there are too many competing formats. Corporations involved in ebook production started to come together to establish interoperable standards, but they still have too many of them. It reminds me of the Beta/VHS wars for video standards. I hope it will have a better ending. I.e. BetaMax is technically a superior format but VHS won the consumers’ hearts and valet.

I didn’t answer the questions yet. I agree with all of them, except the last one. Here are some comments. I miss the word “resolution” from the first one (legibility). The second (words per screen) should be adjustable by the user. The fourth (manipulation by one hand) is not addressing the requirements of people with special needs. I think alternative manipulation methods (following eye movement, voice control, or even brainwaves) are necessary. On the other hand there are unacknowledged possibilities of interaction with the material if we could use both hands with the device. In all science fiction movies that are based no the futures (and not dystopian ones) the interface to the computer systems require both hands (I am thinking of movies like Minority Report or the Matrix.) Ebook device designers could learn from them. I don’t think that accessing millions of books any time, anywhere is a major requirement for ebooks to become successful. Most of us most of the time read one book at any given moment. Yes, when researching or working or thinking we would like to have access to as many of the resources as possible to make possible connection. However reading itself is a passive activity. We would need the high functionality only when we switch to active mode.

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