A: One of its formats is both the same
The original joke I remember reading in the Puffin Joke Book as a child (and bizarrely recall that it was used in the Jigsaw TV series to counter some kind of laughing fit affecting all the characters), but it came to mind when thinking about e-books.
Much of this post is based on a presentation put together by two of my staff last year – so thanks to them. The jokes and some of the thoughts are my own…
One of the most problematic things about e-books is that we don’t really understand what we are talking about. There are a few definitions around:
This first one from
“any piece of electronic text regardless of size or composition (a digital object), but excluding journal publications made electronically (or optically) for any device (handheld or desk-bound) that includes a screen”
– so basically any electronic text that isn’t a journal (but what’s a journal?).
Another one from JISC e-collections:
“an e-book can be a PDF file, interactive website or interactive database”
What about non-interactive websites? Do the ascii text Project Gutenberg files count?
For statistical purposes, SCONUL says (http://www.sconul.ac.uk/groups/performance_improvement/papers/SCONULguidance.doc):
“Use the E-measures Definitions Table [http://www.sconul.ac.uk/groups/performance_improvement/papers/definitionstable.doc] provided to determine whether to count titles within an e-book collection here or to make a single entry under 2k databases.
The distinction is based on the International Standard which includes ‘directories, encyclopaedias, dictionaries, statistical tables and figures’ as ‘databases …usually consulted for specific pieces of information rather than read consecutively’. Please use these definitions even where they do not agree with the practice in your library. The purpose is to ensure that as far as possible all libraries are counting in the same way. You may wish to maintain separately within the library a count of the number of e-books within databases entered in 2k, but this is not required for the SCONUL return. ”
To be honest, I guess we’d encounter the same problem if we tried to define a ‘book’ rather than just an ‘e-book’, and it’s easy to criticise others attempts while I shy away from attempting to do the same. However, it creates a problem in terms of having a common language we agree on to talk about these things. For what its worth I like the way the SCONUL definition suggests the importance difference is how you access the information rather than how the thing fits together.
I’ve just come out of a meeting of UniProc (a purchasing consortium) with colleagues from Oxford University Library and UCL to talk about purchasing e-books. Obviously agreeing what we meant when we said ‘e-book’ was relevant, as if we are going to talk to suppliers, we have to be clear about what we want to buy. We agreed (I think!) that we were talking about:
- Current titles
- Available as a printed book
- Not ‘reference’
- Purchase model not subscription model
Is this a useful working definition? It seems slightly odd to say ‘available as a printed book’ – but to some extent I feel this is key. If someone offered us an e-resource tomorrow that was ‘born digital’ is there any chance we would regard it as an e-book? My guess is not…
This also excludes collections like XRefer, ECO, EEBO, Oxford Reference Collection, Encyclopaedia Britannica etc. Reference works have always been different in terms of the way they are utilised to other books, and once you lose the physical constraints then the differences are more apparent than the similarities. This brings to mind an argument David Weinberger makes in ‘Everything is Miscellaneous’, which says ‘the natural unit of music is the track’ – arguing the concept of an ‘Album’ was driven by economic rather than artistic reasons. I suspect this is slightly mis-reasoned (see Nicholas Carr’s critique), but I also think there is some truth. Although I don’t think there is a ‘natural unit’ of music or of writing, I think some things can be regarded as ‘indivisible’ and some not.
A pop song is often written as a standalone piece, and although there are stand out ‘pop’ albums, in many cases the album is simply a collection of songs. A symphony is clearly designed as a single work, even though it will typically be made up of several ‘movements’, which are usually treated as individual tracks. There is no doubt pleasure can be obtained from listening to individual movements, the symphony is a richer piece and ‘makes sense’ as a cohesive whole (and the same is true of some pop albums and other genres – it’s not unique to Classical music). As an aside, as I digitised my Classical music collection I realised that ‘albums’ were a pain in the neck for classical music – after copying to iTunes I then changed the ‘Album’ information to reflect the piece rather that the physical album.
So I would argue a novel is ‘indivisible’ – although many novels are formed as a series of chapters, these chapters do not standalone. Novels are probably the clearest ‘book’ example here – we can recognise an e-novel because it is cohesive. Even if you dump the physical format you can’t sensibly divide them further.
Other books (many academic books follow this pattern) are constructed of chapters which could be read in isolation and still make sense (indeed, from my memories of my academic studies this is how I used books to write essays – I would read the relevant chapters rather than whole books). Once you leave the physical format, I’d argue these individual chapters become the ‘atomic’ unit.
For reference books this goes further – the individual entries are the ‘atomic’ unit.
So my conclusion for the moment is we can only define e-books in terms of printed books – nothing else makes sense, and anything ‘born digital’ needs to be described as something else (generally we use ‘e-resource’ which is not very helpful!).
Any advance on this – comments and alternatives welcome…
Q: What’s the difference between a duck?
A: One of its legs is both the same.