Gardiner and Musto on The Electronic Book

Gardiner, Eileen and Ronald G. Musto. “The Electronic Book.” The Oxford Companion to the Book. Michael F. Suarez, S.J. and H. R. Woudhusyen, eds. Vol. 1. Oxford UP. Web.

In defining the e-book, Gardiner and Musto write “The e-book is a young medium and its definition is a work in progress, emerging from the history of the print book and evolving technology. In this context it is less useful to consider the book as object-particularly as commercial object-than to view it as cultural practice, with the e-book as one manifestation of this practice” (164). I appreciate this distinction, because it directs the reader away from the now tired arguments about the e-book “killing” the print book. I continue to hope it is clear that digital publication formats are not replacing printed texts, however this fallacy seems to live on in both popular and scholarly debates. Gardiner and Musto’s definition highlights the effects of digital publication on the act of reading, rather than the physical objects (be in paper and ink or PDAs).

That said, this article also provides a history of electronic publish that while reliant on discussions of  medium, serves as a useful reminder that the digital book has been evolving for almost 50 years now. In fact the history begins with Vannevar Bush’s prophetic description of the Memex in 1945, and Ted Holms introduction of the term “hypertext” in 1965. An important date to remember is the “ Mother of All Demos” during which Douglas Engelbart demonstrated e-mail, tele-conferencing, videoconferencing, and the mouse. Gardiner and Musto note “[m]ost importantly for the future of the book, it demonstrated hypertext and introduced the ‘paper paradigm’, which embodied the current standard experience of a computer: windows, black text on white background, files, folders, and a desktop” (165). A convenient timeline of the history of hypertext can be found here: http://www.useit.com/papers/hypertext-history/. One interesting project on this timeline is the If Monks Had Macs: The choices in If Monks Had Macs … were prophetic: its metaphors of pre-print MS, early print, and marginal publishing not only introduced a new medium, but also set the intellectual and cultural paradoxes within which the e-book still operates: an essentially nonlinear, multiple medium that most readers and producers approach with the cultural apparatus developed for the *codex. It was also both retrospective and prescient in terms of production and distribution: like early print, it was produced and distributed outside the mainstream of academic and large business institutions (Gardiner and Musto 165).

Initially this project was on CD-ROM and is now housed here: http://rivertext.com/monks.html (although many of the links are broken). Although there are a few significant projects designed for CD-ROM – including, but not mentioned – the American History Project by Steve Brier, Director of the ITP program at the Graduate Center, the invention of the World Wide Web vastly increased the prevalence of e-books.

With the growth of personal computers and the Internet came libraries of electronic texts. One of my favorite resources, Project Gutenberg, was the forerunner in this pursuit. It began with students typing in texts by hand (can you imagine typing a Victorian novel!!!???), but now uses OCR and currently offers 36000 free online texts in multiple formats. By 2003 almost all texts were born digital, even if printed for distribution and consumption. This shift led to the rise of dedicated e-readers (Kindle, Nook, Sony Reader) and e-reading applications for PDA and mobile devices. Unfortunately, “[t]o accomplish this conversion, most enterprises relied either on automated digitization or on the low wages and long working hours of thousands of centres in the Global South (primarily in India), where an enormous new workforce could produce encoded text, images, and links. This raised ethical and economic issues that were virtually nonexistent for the print book” (Gardiner and Musto 166).

The potential of the e-book lies in what makes it different from the print book: hyperlinking and coding. As Robert Darnton described in 1999, the e-book is multilayered, giving the reader access to potentially infinite information as they interact with the text. I believe these capabilities should be the focus on scholarly debate at this point. Not if ebooks should be used for academic purposes, but how to improve digital texts to maximize their usefulness in scholarly pursuits. For examples, one of the drawbacks to e-books as I see it is inconsistent or non-existent pagination – mainly for the purpose of formal citation, although I question the relevancy of these antiquated models anyway. But this problem also affects the readers’ ability to navigate the text – it is difficult to go to a specific page or direct other readers to a specific passage when discussing the text in a group. Also, as famously proven in the ironic case of Orwell’s 1984, I have serious concerns about the ownership of purchased digital material through proprietary vendors such as Amazon, which can be rescinded without the permission of the consumer. But with these concerns come conveniences. More people have access to more texts. This is a point that should not be undervalued. And, the portability and adaptability of e-reading platforms means more people are reading more often. For use in academia, this gives students access to texts for all of their classes in multiple places (e-readers, cell phones, laptops, cloud storage) and all of their notes and marks are synced across platforms. One interesting development that I consider to have great potential is that these marks and notes can be shared – like picking up a used book and seeing what everyone else who has read that book highlighted and scribbled in the margin. In my Kindle version of John Dewey’s Experience and Education, one sentence is marked as “highlighted by 46 users” in the text. This helps novice readers and researchers understand the annotation process and presents reading a communal, albeit asynchronous, activity. These developments should not be viewed as a threat to the traditional book, they should be heralded as progress toward a more literate public.

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