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How Do You Define the Book?

April 21, 2010

Yesterday, David Lee King shared a blog post entitled What’s a Real Book? It describes an occurrence that took place during David Ferriero’s keynote at last week’s Computers in Libraries conference. (I wasn’t able to attend the conference this year. However, I was able to follow the keynotes on Ustream (cool!), and I distinctly remember the moment that is being described in the blog post.)

At the center of attention? Book vs. ebook.

The point of David Lee King’s post is (1) to ask which is more important–the physical make-up of the book (“container”) or the substance contained therein (“content”) and (2) to suggest that “it’s time for us librarians to get over our paper fetish.”

I love the look, feel, smell, and functionality of the pulp and ink thing we call the “book,” but I tend to agree with David Lee King. My personal preferences aside, I believe there is an underlying concept that encases both what we call the book and the ebook.

I certainly am no philosopher (and, yes, I am just spit balling here) but perhaps it is a question of semantics. For centuries, our definition of “book” has centered on a physical description (book, the container). Just pick up any dictionary that’s at least 5 years old, and look up “book.” With that in mind, is it possible for us to maintain such a traditional definition for “book” and yet agree that there is also a broader, more philosophic definition of the term? A definition such as:

Book — A collection of content (regardless of format) generally centered around the written word and organized in such a way to document and convey meaning, ideas, information, images, etc.

To help illustrate what I am trying to say, I will turn to another passion of mine: music. I still have my collections of audio cassettes and, yes, vinyl LPs. I also have collections of CDs and mp3 files. When the CD arrived and shifted our music from the analog to the digital realm, did the songs (content) change? Of course not. My LP, cassette, CD, and mp3 of Boston’s debut album all have the very same “More Than a Feeling” on them–same lyrics, same music. Some of them may sound better than others or I may prefer to use one version over the others (I don’t even have a record player anymore) but all of that is directly related to the format (container) and my preferences. It’s not because one is more “real” than the others.

I believe there is room for us to (1) continue debating the pros/cons, strengths/weaknesses, etc. surrounding the different iterations–containers–of books, (2) continue having our favorites, and yet (3) agree that there is a unifying concept of “the book” that encompasses all–print books, ebooks, and whatever other formats may follow. This is ground where I believe we can all stand and do our best to be (in the words of David Lee King) “adapting and growing and watching the horizon.”

Just thinking out loud and providing a target for discussion and dart throwing.

So, how do you define “book?”

Pic credit: ceslava.com

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  1. April 21, 2010 at 4:52 pm

    Yes – music is a great example of that! It’s the same song, no matter the format. Nice continuance of the conversation.

  2. Tom Johnson
    April 22, 2010 at 3:23 pm

    The problem maybe more with how the work is used. In digital form it is far too easy to remove content from context. As a vague example: imagine doing a search and getting “The Star Spangled Banner” but only the 10th. and 14th. line. “Where the foe’s haughty host in dread silence reposes” and “In full glory reflected now shines in the stream” Context? As we break works into searchable data, we maybe sacrificing the context and the larger meaning. As an artist it scares me.

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