Saturday, March 18, 2006

Helping Gutenberg

I recently came across Distributed Proofreaders while reading a post at the O'Reilly Radar Blog and have started contributing my time to the project.

There are a number of activities that members can partake in: proofreading, formatting, post-processing, and contributing, among others.

The site could use some updating; it really has a 90s feel to it. However, I love the goal of the project, and will continue using it. (I just finished proofreading a page of old French poetry.)

Monday, March 13, 2006

Bookmarks 2.0

At present, the common bookmark fulfills one purpose: marking a reader's current location in a book, by cutting the book into a "read" section and an "unread" section. Today's bookmarks do this quite well, with a few exceptions:
  • bookmarks fall out of books (Exception #1)
  • a bookmark's sides may be similar or identical, thereby marking pages n and n+1
  • bookmarks only mark a page number, with no further line-granularity
After re-reading this very short list, I realize that these points are quite lame, save the last, in which the key word is only.

There is much being done about replacing paper-based books with e-versions. While this may occur at some point in the far-flung future, it seems quite possible that the average consumer will continue buying the p-version, thereby maintaining a high p/e ratio. (...whatever that means.)

Perhaps an intermediate step before completely electronifying the book would be to add an electronic accessory to it - the electronic bookmark. This would be a very thin device, shaped like a typical bookmark, but perhaps a bit wider. The e-mark would allow for input (stylus or finger) and output (thin-display technology) through some form of mini-browser, and would be wirelessly connected to the web.

What would this then allow for?
  • searches
  • tagging
  • annotation
  • definitions
  • social reading
  • virtual book clubs
  • custom illustrations
  • immediate access to outside sources or references
  • bookmarking
Searching for character names, author biographies, location references and word definitions would be a snap, even more so with direct access to a book's skeleton file, a document containing relevant indexing information for all aspects of the book (content, index, publisher, bibliography, etc.)

Tagging of chapters, pages, paragraphs and sentences would allow content hunters to search for their results in a less algorithmic (ie. typical search-engine-like) manner.

Annotation lets you make virtual margin notes on any page, regardless of how small the actual margins are. Glance at other readers' annotations for tips, insights, and different points of view. (No more of this type of Fermatian excuse: "The proof is quite simple, but I don't have enough room in the margins to demonstrate it.")

Any number of social book applications could be built and accessed through the e-mark: virtual bookclubs, social reading, custom illustrations, errata lists, etc.

Assuming a project such as Google Books allows for snippets (or a bit more) to be pulled out, references and outside sources (primary, secondary, ...) could be fetched to elucidate and illuminate various passages.

And of course, bookmarking. A higher level of bookmark granularity could be achieved using a mechanical slider to indicate which line you're stopping at. This could be a backup to the digital version: a small pointer, enabled by a quick tap of a fingertip.

But, all of this neat functionality literally flies out the window if "Exception #1" occurs above. The bookmark may fall out of the book (and it might be an expensive bookmark). So, another non-digital technology, the elastic band, could be used to secure the e-mark to the p-book.

I think e-marks would be more quickly adopted by readers as an extension to books than would e-books themselves. Asking people to completely replace a proven "technology" (books) with a new one (however cool it may be) can be met with frustrating non-compliance (think Segway). However, boosting the typical reading experience with a new gadget may be a welcome stepping stone to Books 2.0.