The Wall Street Journal has a thought-provoking article on How the E-Book Will Change the Way We Read and Write. (This link will probably expire shortly, considering the WSJ’s policy for selling their archive.)
In the article, Steven Johnson explains how he believes that the book’s migration to the digital realm will affect the way humans read, write and sell books:
“It will make it easier for us to buy books, but at the same time make it easier to stop reading them. It will expand the universe of books at our fingertips, and transform the solitary act of reading into something far more social. It will give writers and publishers the chance to sell more obscure books, but it may well end up undermining some of the core attributes that we have associated with book reading for more than 500 years.
There is great promise and opportunity in the digital-books revolution. The question is: Will we recognize the book itself when that revolution has run its course?”
The answer to that question is, “probably not,” because, if a digital book were printed out, it would probably look like the original manuscript for On the Road, but with variations. In other words, as the author of the WSJ article continues,
“The Kindle doesn’t even have page numbers — it has an entirely new system called “locations” because the pagination changes constantly based on the type size you choose to read. If you want to write a comment about page 32 of “On Beauty,” what do you link to? The Kindle location? The Google Book Search page? This sounds like a question only a librarian would get excited about, but the truth is, until we figure out a standardized way to link to individual pages — so that all the data associated with a specific passage from “On Beauty” point to the same location — books are going to remain orphans in this new world.”
A colleague points out that chapter numbers don’t change, and paragraph numbers don’t change, so if one wanted to cite a specific passage from an e-book in the future, it might look like:
Smith, Zadie (2005). On Beauty, (ch 3, somewhere within paragraph 12). New York: Penguin.
Yes, he’s probably right. Only a librarian could get excited about this stuff. But that’s why the world needs librarians. When you migrate information to a system that ostensibly makes that information infinitely more searchable, it only makes sense that the information should also be more findable!
This is where librarians come in – not only developing policy to enable users to find digital information, but also ensuring that the information is properly searchable. It’s not the end of librarianship, it’s the end of librarianship as we know it.
Here’s what we do know: print is in trouble.
So, what we can do is join in the dialog and become essential parts of the migration. We can help make things happen. And therefore, ensure our place in the history of the digital migration. Because, as Steven Johnson puts it, this is nothing less than a revolution – something on par with the invention of the printing press, which changed the way we gather, store and process information forever.
This is the “AHA” moment: the digital revolution.