Network Ecologies

Book Futures

We believe that the academic book of the future will remain a printed volume which can be marked, tagged, loaned and cited interchangeably with existing books. This physical object will, however, be defined completely by an open data structure containing all of the design and materials information necessary for different printers to manufacture identical (or remixed) volumes. In the process, the book will become truly sustainable for the first time. Printers already accept such data and will fulfill orders competitively even for single units, collecting and re-distributing authors' and institutes' revenues as instructed. Taking the iterative development processes of rapid prototyping as a methodological and practical point of departure, we propose to develop a data structure that can be transformed, without loss, as print technologies evolve. It contains a platform-independent description of the book to enable production in other formats such as educational editions, electronic reading devices, online learning systems, or as layers on research repositories, archives, and collections. The primary book structure will also form the root of a potentially large tree of related data objects that are linked to form a sustainable digital repository of ancillary media and supporting information.

The physical book is not merely ornamental, but remains a “means of inquiry in its own right” (Schnapp 2014). It is irreplaceable for simple practical reasons. That said, we also recognize that information essential to modern research can often no longer be encapsulated in a static printed volume alone. Progress in hybrid publishing during the last decade has demonstrated that the academic book must move beyond its inherited and longstanding format. It is essential that the book gain the capacity to reference other media, not simply citing a film but linking directly to a specific time-code when read electronically, launching a simulation with a specific dataset or rendering a game sequence via a game engine (Yamamiya 2009). The book of the future must be able to incorporate citations of all time-based media with the same rigor and facility characteristic of textual citation.

Equally significant, the academic publishing environment is today threatened by hazards unique to the 21st century: material cited in research publications is becoming increasingly aberrant. While print remains a reliable reference, the lifetime even of archives and repositories on the internet, not to mention institutions' websites, is very uncertain. Early media such as television and experimental data are being lost at an alarming rate. The results of many key publications in all fields, from science to archaeology, can no longer be reproduced because of loss of their experimental data due to technical obsolescence and institutional reorganization.

Our vision of the printed book of the future is inspired by Alan Kay’s Dynabook (Kay 1974). The book as the root of a linked digital repository has become a viable and sustainable reality only during the last five years. We can, of course, still publish books accompanied only by data necessary and sufficient to manufacture the printed volume or to deliver derivatives to electronic platforms; but as a linked digital repository, the book has the capacity also to contain, make accessible, and potentially to preserve, other works and materials.

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