In silico veritas.

Wherefore page numbers?

Posted: December 1st, 2010 | Author: | Filed under: Tech | Tags: , , , , , , | 4 Comments »

Chris Meadows at TeleRead cites a TechCrunch piece by Sarah Lacy on the lack of a reliable citation solution for e-books:

While there are a number of possible reasons one might think paper books are better than e-books (including aroma), Lacy’s reason comes down to simple annoyance at a lack of page numbers. In particular, she found herself at a loss for how to cite books she read on Kindle in her academic papers.

In the follow-up discussion of the article, some readers point out that the Chicago Manual of Style offers a guide to citing e-books […] And it includes an example of a “Kindle edition”. A “location” number would seem to be a perfect example of an “other” number. In fact, it might even be more useful than a page number, because the “location” would be about the same no matter which device you read a Kindle e-book on, whereas a page number only applies to one specific version of the printed book.

There are MLA and APA guidelines to citing e-books, too, though neither of them expressly mentions (that I can find) what to do about a book that has no page numbering. But I imagine “location number” would suffice in those cases too, especially with some explanation to the professor of the nature of the source.

While both TechCrunch and TeleRead are right to examine the real problem posed to current academic citation conventions by reflowable digital documents, it seems to me that there’s a serious case of missing the forest for the trees here.

Despite all the digital ink spilled on the topic, neither Meadows nor Lacy mentions the perhaps too-obvious reasoning for page-number-centric citation — to facilitate quick fact-checking for peer or professorial review. When you have a medium that allows for instantaneous word and text-string searches, why do you need to know the page number? You can determine if a particular quotation in a paper is actually in the cited work literally as quickly as you can type. As semantic search technologies in particular mature, it’ll become easier than ever to determine the veracity of a particular citation even in cases of paraphrasing.

Now, I might very well be over-trivializing the issue, but I can’t for the life of me understand why, as Lacy puts it in her TechCrunch post, Amazon has “to design for it [the academic market]” by correlating Kindle “locations to “real page numbers” (which, as Meadows rightly points out, are a nebulous concept at any rate). It seems even now, in the age of the iPad and Kindle, we’ll have to wait for yet wider adoption of e-books and tablets/readers before we stop mentally forcing e-books into the print paradigm of consumption. Once we begin to recognize the full implications of instantaneous search and annotation in e-books, I suspect we’ll wonder how we ever lived without them.

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