The End of the Book as We Know It?

What becomes of the book online, if it effectively becomes more like a journal—searchable and perhaps even purchasable at the chapter level? That was a question implicit in two meetings on the state of scholarly publishing over the past week: Oxford Journals Day and the Ithaka Sustainable Scholarship Conference.

Casper Grathwohl, a vice president at Oxford University Press, described efforts to make the contents of books more discoverable by narrow and targeted searches. Obviously, that is possible now at a variety of sites, such as Google Book Search, which tends to treat the entire work as an extensive and searchable block of text. But ultimately, the results of a discovery tend to link back to a book, and beneath that to a particular page in the book.

What Grathwohl was suggesting, and the JSTOR staff subsequently announced they were implementing, was a unit of discovery at the chapter level—allowing readers to effectively (in Grathwohl’s words) “treat the book as if it were a journal, or collection of articles.”

At one level, this opens up exciting possibilities for new types of search tools and linking across scholarly works. But at another level, this could reinforce the selective reading of small parts of history books. That notion offended members of both audiences, who spoke up to defend a linear model of book reading—where a reader starts with the introduction and moves sequentially page after page to the conclusion.

Authors generally write their books with that type of reading in mind, but a moment’s reflection suggests that is rarely the way history monographs are actually read, even in a print format. Most of us were taught in graduate school to read the introduction and conclusion of a book, and then “skim the rest.” And it has long been a damning indictment of history books that they lack a proper index—the traditional “search utility” for book-level research.

JSTOR’s  announcement that its book project will allow discovery and delivery at the chapter level points to a potential cultural tipping point for the history discipline. We have long romanticized the notion of the book as the highest form of expression in the discipline. It may be time to ask what becomes of that ideal if book chapters become more akin to free-standing articles. That is sure to challenge some of our underlying assumptions about the way we write books and way we imagine readers are consuming them.

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  1. David Terrell

    I would like to think that, were I to read a good chapter, I would read the entire text. It is an argument for grater readability.

    I am, in large measure, in support of the JSTOR effort. I have used Google Books as a focused search engine for many of the paper texts in my personal library, as even those limited to preview-only return page numbers in response to in-book searches.

    I do agree that the writing paradigm will change if chapters must truly stand alone. We may need to begin citing other chapters in our own “books,” creating virtual ties bridging the gaps between the chapters, to facilitate the intended flow from one to the next.

    If desired, we will need to explicitly define our intended flow, imposing order where hypertext provides multi-directional possibilities. It also opens the possibility of multiple, simultaneous threads of argument that could include many chapters from otherwise unconnected documents. In a sense, I see the emergence of the ability to create explicit meta-narratives by stringing together “reading chains”; chapters written by many, interspersed by my contribution to the discussion…

    … laying a string through the labyrinth.

    David G Terrell, MA History, AMU

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