Recently, I came across an interesting article thanks to Jill O’Neill’s Twitter stream. The author of the post, Lukas Koster, tried to assess whether an e-book is really a book. Now, while this might seem an academic question of little practical consequence, the fact of the matter is that for libraries, publishers, and authors, the questions raised by Koster are fundamental.
The essence of Koster’s essay deals with the “Functional Requirements for Bibliographic Records,” (FRBR) limited to the Group 1 entities including books. He talks about the logical, phenomenological chain the Library of Congress uses to think through these issues:
- Work – a distinct intellectual or artistic creation
- Expression – the intellectual or artistic realization of a work
- Manifestation – the physical embodiment of an expression of a work
- Item – a single exemplar (or copy) of a manifestation
In this model, a “work” is the intellectual output that is revealed through expression and captured in some manifestation that is possessed as a single item — a copy of a book, let’s say.
But when contemplating how a manifestation becomes an item in the e-world, Koster runs aground, asking if perhaps the FRBR needs another level to accommodate the realities of e-publishing — that is, articles not captured in an issue, e-manifestations that are manipulable on the device level, and the proliferation of output standards and media.
For cataloging, selling, archiving, and tracking, the proliferation of manifestations into items that recurse into manifestations becomes problematic. My personal experience as an author with books available in print, PDF, EPUB, mobi, and many other formats has brought home how tough it is to manage all these different options, and also how different the experience can be for different readers. People enjoying “an absorbing mystery that is chock full of twisting plots and tantalizing clues” (hey, it’s an actual review, and I’m sick of Dan Brown outselling me!) are reading the same work realized through the same mode of expression (writing), and even the same manifestation (a novel), but they aren’t experiencing the same item. Did they read the book on the Kindle? The Kindle iPhone app? The Kindle desktop app? PDF on-screen? PDF printed two-up? PDF on a Sony Reader?
Ultimately, perhaps the answer isn’t to add bifurcations to the “item” end of the model, but to truncate the model after “manifestation.” But there are problems with this, as “manifestations” are described more precisely by:
- form of carrier
- extent of the carrier
- physical medium
- system requirements (electronic resource)
- file characteristics (electronic resource)
- mode of access (remote access electronic resource)
- access address (remote access electronic resource)
As noted above, a Kindle book downloaded may be read on a Kindle device, an iPhone, or a computer — or any combination of the three over the course of reading the entire work.
Should we trim up the tree further? Simply stop at “expression”? In that case, you would have the expression of the work “Tom Sawyer,” with the FRBR silent from that point on. And that may be where we’re headed — toward a world that can’t presume items or manifestations, but only list expressions of works. Or perhaps we should evacuate some of the detail from “manifestation” in order to provide an appropriate silence on the issues involved.
Attempts to identify each item potentiality or each manifestation are becoming akin to debates about how many angels can dance on the head of a pin. In this case, however, it’s driven by a proliferation of items that can manipulate manifestations unpredictably.
In this realm, the angels certainly aren’t making it any easier.