Text Patterns - by Alan Jacobs

Wednesday, April 29, 2009

URLs for books

One small but, to me, significant point that Steven Johnson raises in his recent essay on e-reading is the increasingly evident need for something like a URL — a Universal Record Locator — for books. Without this, the utopian dreams of connecting the world of readers are bound to failure.

For centuries, we've had an explicit system for organizing print books in the form of page numbers and bibliographic info. All of that breaks down in this new digital world. 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.)

As a teacher I assign particular editions of books for my classes, of course, and that means that usually we are all quite literally on the same page in class. But not always. A student who already has the Robert Fagles translation of the Odyssey might not see a good reason to buy the Robert Fitzgerald translation I have assigned — or just might not have the money. Understandable. But when I tell the class to turn to page 271, and read a passage from that page, I could be moving on to another passage before the student with a different edition finds those lines. Sometimes, if there are book and line numbers, I will mention those, and that helps — but line numbers vary in translated texts (as they do in editions of Shakespeare’s plays).

In the course on Christianity and Fantasy I have been teaching this term the problem has been acute, because there are so many different editions available of The Lord of the Rings and Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials trilogy and, to a lesser extent, Susanna Clarke’s Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell. It was consistently difficult to get everyone in class looking at the same passages at the same time.

There are some books that don't present this problem. Poems in English with line numbers. The Bible, which we can cite by chapter and verse. The works of Aristotle, universally cited by Bekker numbers and those of Plato, which use the Stephanus pagination. Most recent editions of James Joyce’s Ulysses, which draw on the lineation established by Hans Walter Gabler, even when they don't use Gabler’s text. But these are few and far between. URLs for books would be a boon to the whole world of readers, but especially for teachers and students.


  • John Schwenkler said...

    "... and that means that usually we are all quite literally on the same page in class."

    Really? How do you all fit?

    P.S. Don't forget the A/B pagination from the first Critique!

  • It depends on what the meaning of "on" is.

  • John Schwenkler said...

    Well it depends on the meaning of "same", too, but more to the point: isn't the meaning of "on" that you're using a non-literal one? (I'm happy, as ever, to be corrected.)

  • Michael Straight said...

    The simplest system for a standard citation of digitized books would be some unique identifier for the particular book followed by a number counting the words from the beginning of the book to the passage you're trying to cite. Something like this:


    Which would take you to the 3456th word in the book whose ISBN# (or other unique identifyer) is 88776655.

  • Though it's a slightly different angle than what you discuss here, this issue of paginating items is also interesting when it comes to MLA/APA styles, which strike me as terribly insufficient when they instruct scholars to cite the paragraph when page numbers are not available. Who in their right mind wants to count paragraphs on a 6,000 word online article?

  • Alan Jacobs said...

    John, I was making a joke in order to avoid admitting that I mad made a mistake. A skill everyone should develop.

  • Alan Jacobs said...

    Geoff, you're right — which is why I like the online scholarly that indicate the page numbers from the print editions.

  • Alan Jacobs said...

    Michael, I think you may be right: counting words may be the only universally reliable method.

  • The only reliable metric will be at the word or character level, since everything else is subject to layout considerations. Even words aren't immune, when hyphenated at the page margin, though if the standard is for a hyphenated word to be a single word, that should be solved. There would be other occasional problems, like diagrams and other imagery getting stuck after the correct word in cases where they were originally on the opposite page, and so on. But it would work overall.

    Keep in mind that it doesn't help in your case of alternate translations, since those would presumably differ in at least some words and in the total number. You could potentially carry some sort of relationship between and an original and a translation, such that if you send someone to the URI for word 1832 of Anna Kerinina it will then forward you to the relevant passage in your local translation. It'll be interesting.

    On 'on', I'll make John happy by correcting him. 'On page x' is not a figurative use of 'on', it's standard usage.

  • John Schwenkler said...

    And I was being an insufferable pedant, Alan. This, too, is a skill, though perhaps not one that deserves to be especially widely cultivated.

  • You taught Jonathan Strange & Mr.Norrell!?

    Man, I wish I was back up at Wheaton right now.

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