Boston College Libraries Faculty Newsletter



Opinion Piece

The Evolving Book

Electronic books no longer constitute some esoteric medium whose potential scholarly utility is viewed with suspicion by many faculty and students. Hundreds of thousands of books in electronic format are readily available though such databases as Early English Books Online, Evans Early American Imprints One and Two, Eighteenth Century Collections Online, ACLS Humanities E-Book Project and others. While these are costly databases, numerous other digitized books are freely accessible to anyone with internet access. A goal of the Google Book Project is to digitize as many as thirty million print books. If a book digitized by Google is in the public domain or if the publisher has given permission, the full book is available to be read online, printed out, or downloaded.  Hundreds of thousands of open access e-texts are also available through other sites, for example the University of Michigan Digital Library Text Collection, the Oxford Text Archive, The Electronic Text Center at the University of Virginia, the French site Gallica, the Project Bartleby Archive; Project Gutenberg; and many others. The Internet Archive, part of the Open Content Alliance (OCA), has at the time of writing 1,422,065 freely accessible digital texts. 

Inanimate Alice
Inanimate Alice 'e-book' new window

E-books are by no means limited to digitized versions of print books. Many e-books are digital only and possess such multimedia features as sound, video, animated graphics thereby producing a qualitatively different notion of what a book is. E-books can also have the valuable enhancement of allowing the reader to call up through hyperlinks the actual document mentioned in a reference. Thus one may easily toggle between texts or even have several different texts open on one’s screen concurrently. Hypertext fiction has been around many years. This is fiction where the reader chooses hyperlinks to move from one part of the text to another and to create their own individual text thereby engaging in reading that is quite different to traditional linear reading of sentence by sentence, from first page to last. Michael Joyce’s Reach (2000) is a good example, as is Deena Larsen’s 2000 Disappearing Rain. Not dissimilar is Kate Pullinger’s and Chris Joseph’s 2006 Inanimate Alice, a story of interactive episodes combining text, sound, images, and games. Another example is Stuart Moulthrop’s 2007 Radio Salience. There is also a growing number of websites focusing on scholarly electronic editions of well known texts often accompanied by contextual essays, commentary, analysis, notes, comparison of side-by-side texts, visual and

Devil's Walk
The Devil's Walk 'e-book' new window

audio features. Several examples from the field of literature include, among numerous others: an e-edition of Percy Bysshe Shelley's The Devil's Walk; the William Blake Archive; the Walt Whitman Archive; the Dickinson Electronic Archives; the Decameron Web; the Princeton Dante Project; Hap Hazard: A Manuscript Resource for Spenser Studies; the Diary of Samuel Pepys; Early Stuart Libels. Arguably such e-editions can facilitate innovative methods of discovering, interacting with and analyzing texts and, accordingly, different and potentially deeper scholarship than traditional print editions.


MP3The notion of what is a book is clearly evolving.  How exactly do we define a book today? Must it have physicality to be a book? Is an e-book only a text and not also a book? Presumably a text can have sound, video, computer graphics, hyperlinks, other web content? Can a book have such attributes and still be a book? What is War and Peace, originally a print book, when transformed into the digital media files of a podcast and then downloaded onto a MP3? Is it no longer a book? Maybe all these are inconsequential questions and the diverse evolving formats are not to be defined according to narrow and perhaps outdated criteria. Certainly it may be argued that different formats, different media result in different perceptions and understandings by the reader.  Sven Birkerts in a March 2009 article in The Atlantic sees a necessary difference between formats. Though the reader will perceive the words of Pride and Prejudice, whether in electronic or print format in the same sequence, “[w]hat will change is the receiving sensibility, the background understanding of what this text was – how it emerged and took its place in the context of other texts—and how it moved through the culture.” Birkerts acknowledges that there are benefits in digitization but he also believes that there is a distinct trade-off, i.e. “access versus context”. Still, while accepting that perceptions and understandings depend in part on the format, it may be asked whether there is some hierarchy of formats in the scholarly world and to what extent, if any, can format be equated with quality? In the academic sphere where decisions regarding one’s tenure, promotion, and funding depend in large part on the quality of the individual’s scholarship, attitudes towards the format of the dissemination of that scholarship are likely to be crucial.

While Birkerts makes an important point, I’ll go out on a limb and propose that for many readers the actual words are what matters most. Reading the text for content is why the majority of us consult books. The materiality of the artifact on which the text is read is generally of less importance. Obviously there are numerous exceptions and I’m certainly not negating the immense value, scholarly, aesthetic, emotional, and otherwise of actually consulting, say, one of the five extant manuscript copies of the Gettysburg Address. Though one may access the words of William Butler Yeats’s verse play Mosada in numerous editions, many will experience a particularly special and very distinct feeling reading it in the very rare 1943 Cuala Press edition owned by Burns’s Library. Consulting a digitized incunabulum is clearly rather different to handling and reading the actual 15th century original. The examples might be multiplied many times. Nevertheless, I suspect that for most readers a facsimile of words is a perfectly acceptable alternative to the original print

copy. And if the facsimile is in digital format many might consider that this is a benefit. Certainly, some authors are interested in the physical appearance of their text, that is specify how their words will appear on the printed page. Laurence Sterne was very prescriptive how his Tristram

Easter Wings
Easter Wings new window

Shandy (1765-1769) should be printed, specifying blank pages, black pages, gaps for the reader to insert text. Authors of concrete or visual poetry are other exceptions, George Herbert’s “Easter-Wings” and Hrabanus Marus’s "De adoratione crucis ab opifice” being two 17th century examples. Still, most authors leave it to the printer to express the sense of their work in typographical format. And many, I suspect, will be satisfied, even happy, to have their work disseminated widely in digital format with concerns about the physical appearance and materiality of the text ignored.


Just as scribal manuscript culture coexisted with Gutenberg’s new invention for a least a century before fading away, it is likely that the printed book will continue side-by-side with e-books and all forms of e-texts for a long time to come. The traditional book is far from meeting obsolescence in the near future. However, e-books and e-texts will undoubtedly evolve and it would be rash to predict what sort of innovation they will display in, say, a decade’s time. It is true that the Academy is beginning to be more accepting of the new technology. While this is more manifest in the sciences, the humanities and social sciences are not being left behind. Still, an optimal intellectual and physical infrastructure that supports and rewards such technology as e-books and e-texts has still far to go. Our Cultural Commonwealth, the 2006 report of the American Council of Learned Societies commission on cyberinfrastructure for the humanities and social sciences, is apt in stating “that digital scholarship is the inevitable future of the humanities and social sciences, and that digital literacy is a matter of national competitiveness and a mission that needs to be embraced by universities, libraries, museums, and archives” (34). Boston College Libraries are cognizant of the urgency of this need and are keen to seek faculty and student input regarding how best to facilitate both the production and dissemination of such digital scholarship while maintaining the highest library and informational standards of traditional print-based scholarship.


Brendan Rapple

Brendan Rapple
Collection Development Librarian




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