The future of books in an electronic era

Publication Date01 Mar 1998
Pages191-198
DOIhttps://doi.org/10.1108/eb045638
AuthorPhilip Barker
SubjectInformation & knowledge management,Library & information science
The future of books in an
electronic era*
Philip Barker
Interactive Systems Research Group, Human-Computer Interaction Laboratory, School of
Computing and Mathematics, University of
Teesside,
Middlesbrough, Cleveland,
TS1
3BA,
United Kingdom.
email:
philip.barker@tees.ac.uk
Abstract:
Books form an
important
part of
human
culture.
They can
be used to
document,
entertain,
inform
and
instruct.
Conventional approaches
to
book production have involved
either manual or
mechanical
bind-
ing of
sheets
of paper
in order to form
an
organised,
structured,
composite
entity.
New
publication media
now
offer many alternative approaches
to the
creation
of
books
and
the ways
in
which they can
be
disseminated
and
used.
This
paper
therefore discusses the growing importance
of electronic
publication.
It
then uses
a case
study
to illustrate
the
influence
that
online books
and other
forms
of
electronic document might have
on con-
ventional publishing
processes.
1. Introduction
Nowadays, books are an 'everyday' phenomenon
with which virtually everyone is familiar. Indeed,
these entities form an important aspect of almost
every human culture. In order to understand the
roles that these objects play, and the influence
that they have on human beings, it is necessary
to analyse their 'emergence' and evolution in
terms of 'systems theory'. That is, we need to
identify their position and function within the hier-
archy of systems that make up the physical and
abstract universes within which we ourselves
exist.
According to Checkland (1972), there are four
generic types of system into which all others may be
classified.
He refers to these as:
natural systems
human activity systems
designed physical systems
designed abstract systems
From an egocentric perspective, human activity sys-
tems are probably the most important. This class of
system involves individuals (or groups of people
working together in a collaborative way) realising the
goals and ambitions that they set for themselves - or
with which they are confronted. Undoubtedly, two of
the most important types of activity in which human-
beings participate are: communication (both with
self and with others) and cognition. Cognition is
important because it involves both conscious and
involuntary mental processes which can create
knowledge structures 'in our heads' (Rogers et al,
1992).
The
significance of these structures lies in the
fact that, ultimately, they are responsible for all
high-
er-order human behaviour.
Bearing in mind what has been said above, it is
relatively easy to identify the roles that books play
within the context of human activity systems.
According to Checkland's taxonomy, books are
examples of 'designed physical systems'. Their pur-
pose is to support the two types of human activity
referred to above (communication and cognition).
Along with other related artefacts, books enable us to
communicate with each other through the exchange
of written
information;
they also allow us to store vast
amounts of static, visual material which can be used
by individuals in order to initiate and sustain the
development of complex and sophisticated knowl-
edge structures (Barker et
al,
1998a; 1998b).
Undoubtedly, since their conception some centuries
ago,
books have become an effective and efficient
mechanism by which to communicate ideas, obser-
vations, commentary, legislation, musical score,
plays,
stories, poetry, science, mathematics, and so
on.
Naturally, despite their utility, conventional books
that are published 'on paper' have numerous limita-
tions (Barker and Manji, 1988). It is therefore neces-
sary to consider how alternative forms of book, that
*An earlier version of this paper was presented as an invited keynote address at the BIREME\PAHO\WHO
CRICS IV International Conference which was held in San Jose, Costa Rica, during the period 24th-27th
March,
1998.
ARTICLE
"two of the most
important types
of activity in
which human
beings participate
are:
communication
... and
cognition"
The Electronic Library, Vol. 16, No. 3, June 1998 191

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