What is a "Book"?

Did that title grab your attention? Or is the question just too obvious.

Of course I know what a book is, they are sitting there in various rooms in my house. A partly read one sits on the table next to my laptop, a pen sticking out of it. But to look beyond the physical manifestations of the familiar, in the first of a series of essays, @hughmcguire poses the thoughtful question…

This comes from someone who has spawned successful digital book enterprises in the forms of public domain audio books (LibreVox) and digital open educational books (Pressbooks). Hugh also co-authored in 2012 a… book about the future of books, see “Book: A Futurist’s Manifesto” He suggests that our concept of the book ought to be evolving,not fixed:

For books to remain important, authors, publishers, designers, technology platforms, all of us involved in delivering books and the stuff in them must continue to build on our visions, embracing, in particular, what the web can offer to the enduring concept of the book.

Read more of this first of five installments, and perhaps share some thoughts here as to where the concept of a book might be headed. Perhaps suggest alternative definitions that are meaningful to you. Or share maybe your favorite examples of what a digital book on the web is and pushes at our conventions of those things on a shelf.

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Small note here that I can confirm @Downes reads these posts!


Thanks, Stephen, you seem to have eyes in all corners of the web

I’ve been tossing this around in my head since seeing @Downes reference to it on Twitter. My first thought was that length distinguishes a book from other writing like blogposts, articles, pamphlets etc. With a multitude of formats that include much more than text, I still think it is the length of a book that sets it apart. A delicious novel provides hours and hours of curiosity and delight (or not). Provocative works like Friere’s Pedagogy of the Oppressed or hooks’ Teaching to Transgress come at the theme again and again from various perspectives and in different contexts to develop a persuasive case. That’s not to say an article or short monograph can’t be persuasive or explosive, but a book, because of its length has the potential to be more thorough - or more boring. So whether eBook, audiobook, web book with hyperlinked content, or even a print book with QR codes that link videos, it’s still a book if it has enough length. I refuse, however to quantify, “length” or “enough.”

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Thanks for jumping in Jim, and agree that while “length” is not quantifiable (making it not possible but perhaps interesting to argue what is not book length) it works as Hugh argued for more than bounded print. That need long ago to sew the pages together suggests some point of realizing it was important to assemble together pages.

Perhaps to add is a book might also be something that is, edited, reviewed, re-written before being distributed, not the stream of conscious stuff we do in blogs. Maybe not, that seems arbitrary.

“That need long ago to sew the pages together” reminds me of an interesting discussion around the Biblical canon. When the technology of sacred writings progressed(?) from a collection of scrolls to a bound byblos, the collection become a lot less fluid (or less open, to tie into this OEG theme). A defined canon starts to take on the appearance of uniformly authoritative works when the pages are sewn together into a book. It is no longer as simple as “these are the scrolls in our basket, and your basket has mostly the same ones,” but it becomes “Who has the right Bible?”
Today, digital online Bibles are making the different collections (and canonically ambiguous works) visible and accessible again to those who might not ever purchase an Orthodox or Coptic Bible. New “book” formats have not opened the official canon(s), but they are certainly opening minds to consider more authors than were available when “book” was only a physical assembly of print pages.
The idea that a book is characterized by editing and rewriting gets really interesting in this context - and produces more fireworks than New Year’s Eve.
“What is a ‘Book?’” is a great conversation starter - can go into so many directions for those of us who like to hear ourselves talk.

Yes, and…
We might want to take a step back to understand the full impact of @hughmcguire’s approach to books on the OE movement.
PB (and Rebus) may be central to the OER side of the OE movement. Yet Hugh’s involvement in the full “landscape of open” affords further discussion.

For instance, people may not know about BookOven. Or about Hugh’s involvement in BookCamp.

Personally, I find it sad that LibriVox rarely gets a mention in the OER part of the OE movement.

Prepping for some of my #oeweek workshops, I just went back to our Librivox recordings (in French) from 15 years ago.
I only did a few, from 2007 to 2009. Yet it sure inspired me in those early days of my OER work.
Ezwa has done close to 2000, including one (in English) last September. I have no idea of Ezwa’s whereabouts. Those contributions bring context to Francophone OERs, if you ask me.
I get the impression that some people’s visceral reaction would be to define them away from OERs. For strange reasons which relate to people’s expectations.

  • They weren’t originally designed as learning material (despite the fact that they obviously work well for diverse learning experiences).
  • Since the original texts are themselves openly available and since scriptocentrism runs rampant across Higher Education, those “amateur audiobooks” don’t sound that appealing to some people.
  • They sound too granular, to some people. Even though they’re sections from books, it’s almost as though they didn’t count.
  • Strangely enough, their Public Domain status makes them sound foreign in the CC-focused context (despite the fact that @Jennryn, @cable, and others would be the first to push PD resources in learning experiences).
  • As far as I can tell, they never received the full “referencing” treatment using LOM, MLR, LRMI, etc. Sure, you can find them outside of librivox.org (even without attribution). Yet I don’t think they’ve been indexed, catalogued, linked to controlled vocabularies, or given the full Linked Open Data treatment. (Hugh might correct me, if I’m wrong.)
  • A large part of the LibriVox success is in the community-building aspect. Hugh has a lot to say about what it means for business models. (Chitu Okoli and the TIM Review crowd would piggyback on that conversation.) For many of us, it’s also inspiring in terms of collaborative learning experiences.

All this to say…
I think some OEG members would have quite a bit of fun in discovering different dimensions of Hugh’s pre-PB history.

Thanks for this Alex, you are triggering many thoughts that may end up as an incoherent response.

Maybe the old saying can be “those who forget open education history are doomed to not know about it.” I am one who likely knows of Librivox in limited passing, and just as likely there are many more projects, ideas, that are lingering unused in various corners of the warehouse. The internet archive likely has much more untouched content as reused.

One could just see this as potential (optimist?) than not.

Some of your discussion leans into those topics I find less interesting, “What is an OER?” as much of the focus seems to be on the assembled ones- the open courses assembled, the open textbooks. I frankly have always been more interested in the cleve uses of what it seems like you surface in Librivox, more like the raw material for potential educational use. A good teaching activity need not rely only on polished OER “designed as learning experiences”

So maybe it would help to see/hear examples of activities created around these archives (which you likely have).

The thing about audio as a media is that it is not quite readily “scanned” for interest / indexing as text. You have to either (a) be really familiar with the source material being read or have closely listened to a good amount of it (it is nice to see the openverse search expanding to audio, that likely requires metadata and transcription?).

Also, people are much less likely to “stumble” across these, right? One of my favorite discovery mechanisms is the browser extension that opens a new tab with a random image from the LIbrary of Congress PD collection. There is something to be about these seeding of curiosity while I wait for a window to open. I am not sure there is a place (or I want) that with audio. But it seems we are less likely to randomly bump into random audio than random images.

Does it matter that people cannot see/hear the potential, that their reaction is to define them away from OERs? I am fairly sure there is a grand amount of OER created outside the scope of the conferences, journals, limelight that is not seen either.

I’d see all this material as a vast sea of potential rather than worrying how well it is used or known. And keep mentioning it, things are truly dead when no one remembers them,

This also reminds me a few weeks go I got some kind email from the brilliant early web service LibraryThing informing me I was awarded a badge for being on the site for fifteen years. I am pretty sure it has been maybe 10 since I logged in! But it really was and still holds up as a forerunner for Goodreads et al.

Beyond the nostalgia, it just reminds me that good ideas might not stay popular but are still worthy. If remembered.

Thanks again for the reminder of Librivox- I don’t care if it’s in the OER “canon” but it’s a good reminder that there is potential there for something to make of all that PD content.

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We’re on the same page… reading different things. Which is exactly as it should be, if you ask me.

I fully understand that the “What is an OER?” question isn’t interesting for you. The same way the “What is a Book?” question may not resonate in some circles. Such questions have been rehashed so much that we can “feel the fault lines”.
The reason it remains relevant in my context is that there’s an influx of people into the OER scene, including many whose whole schooling has benefitted from Open Pedagogy. And I’m trying to bring them to OEG Connect.
So, that’s my “defense” of entertaining this question. I wish we could move on. I don’t feel everyone’s ready.

As an aural person, what you say about audio does resonate, with rich harmonics and few inharmonic partials. :wink:
(In a way, @jsebesta1, Laura Pasquini, and @clintlalonde were also on my mind. :sound: )
At the same time, because the texts themselves are also available, they’re easy to scan. What might be needed is a DocDrop-like tool to sync text and audio.

As for actual use of those LV recordings in teaching, I’ll search for examples.

When an OER falls in a forest and nobody’s adopting it, does it cease to be an OER?

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I do consider myself an “aural person”!

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@cogdog We think our track goes more or less in that direction… We have more questions than answers, but we’d like to discuss it along with all of you in our track next Friday, March 11th, 17:00 CEST
Spoiler alert, we really think that tech and science are not only learned from books but in labs. How to make THAT open, that’s another story. Perhaps that’s why we created Alquimétricos LAB


Many thanks, Fernando, and as someone who studied science (Geology) and learned technology not from books, I am very interested in the laboratory approach.

I plan to be there.


Starting soon!
Reach us at https://lab.alquimetricos.tv
see ya!