“The End of the End of the Book: Dead Books, Lively Margins, and Social Computing”

Citation: “The End of the End of the Book: Dead Books, Lively Margins, and Social Computing.” Michigan Quarterly Review, 48 (2009): 499-520. Special issue on “Bookishness: The New Fate of Reading in the Digital Age”

[From the “Bookishness Today” section of the essay]

Riddle me this: what kind of “bookshelf” or “my library” in an online sidebar is able to transcend the passivity of a container or support structure to boldly go where no bookshelf has gone before–to trek actively in quest of the furthest galaxies of knowledge and beam them hypertextually back to the user? Just as the character Data in the series Star Trek: The Next Generation makes data an agent rather than mere object of quest (otherwise known as “search result”), so the “bookshelves” and “my libraries” of the new research online reading environments are a bit too lively, too full of semi-autonomous agency, to sit still like well-behaved bookish furniture or buildings. They exceed the constraints of outmoded metaphors that tell them to behave like a good shelf or library (not to mention the whole complement of bookish metaphors that digital humanists have been straining under, including such wildly inadequate notions as digital “archives” and “editions”). In general, there is an excess of agency in the sidebars of advanced online environments that causes them to overstep the bounds of the limited actions originally provided by Web sidebars: holding, indexing, organizing, and navigating. Like the door or speed bump in Bruno Latour’s analysis, the sidebar in today’s online environments epitomizes the kind of shared human/machinic agency that is the paradigm of actor-network theory (ANT) in science-technology studies