8 Container vs Context

In an interlinking world of publications there is an increasing need for content to adapt for different means of consumption.

Historically, publications are defined by their containers – that is a book, or a magazine, or a newspaper or…. In a world where information is consumed on multiple platforms a publisher must be aware of the norms associated with different formats (or containers), however they must also be  aware of the context in which these publications are being read. That is to say, what is their relation to other content (i.e. references) and how are the readers consuming this data (through which medium).

This is due to the form that information takes in the digital world. Whereby a book is identified and interpreted not only by human readers but by machine interpreters as well. What’s more is that the machine interpreters allow human readers to successfully interact with the material and its supplementary information.[1]

Brian O’Leary gives an interesting talk upon the nature of modern context-aware publishing here.

The essential principle is that publishers are taking a decision as to whether they are providers of products (such as books) or whether they are providers of content. The first approach dictates that a publication is made in a specific form for a specific use. While the second states that content is created for consumption in multiple formats. This is seen specifically in educational and academic publishers where the core content and supplementary content is all interlinked, along with software platforms, into one experience.

Two interpretations of context

O’Leary addresses context as the information context in which information is created. That is, the referential framework in which much educational content is based. Because much content is related in some way or another, it means that we can draw on this context to annotate and enrich data.

Another interpretation of this is to say that the medium of consumption is a context, that is to say, the medium is the context. In a printed (or e-reader) context, the supplementary material can be referred to, but can’t really be part of the experience. However, on an inter-connected, web-enabled media device (such as a desktop computer, tablet or smart phone) the experience can change to one in which the core content is shortened and the supplementary content (such as explanatory video) is highlighted.

In the same breath, exploring the content on a feature phone can lead to low-bandwidth renderings of essential information.

Thus it is important for modern publishers to be aware of the needs of their market. If a magazine seeks to be the voice on a topic, then the whole brand is to be trusted, and content provided through it. Textbook publishers have been supplying posters and lesson plans with their books for years. Now, we can look towards providing content with learner management systems like those rolled out this year by Macmillan for ease of marking and study support.

The advantage of contextualised publishing

Publishing in this form is an inherently digital form and must be considered for that purpose. While printed media and information always exists in a greater contextual framework (from fictional allusions to scholarly references), and to support we have written literary devices. In the digital space those devices are not just labels, but links. A well made digital publication can pull in references and supplementary material, treat footnotes as organic overlays and take advantage of modern web-based workflows.

That said, to publish in this way to take advantage of the web as a workflow platform. It means to use the power of web-hosting and mark-up languages to create digital publications with a master document which links to all associated information, and through scripting and styling can adapt depending on how it is being viewed.

Publishing in this manner, is not about changing the nature of publications, but taking advantage of the modern tools used to create them i.e. web technologies.

Book in browsers

This is not a novel concept. The web interface is perfectly set-up to handle modern book rendering and consumption. Liza Daly showed this with the success of the Ibis Reader, a web app that allows one to engage in cloud-based reading on any device. But reading on-line is something which every web-user does.

The Books in Browsers conference describes itself as “a small summit for the new generation of internet publishing companies, focusing on developers and designers who are building and launching tools for online storytelling, expression, and art.”

There is an argument that the ultimate e-book platform (the web) already exists, but that we’re still trying to find out how to make books for it.

Sample abstracts of talks

Bill McCoy, IDPF
The Inhuman Future of Digital Reading

Digital books and other publications are being consumed not only by linear visual reading a la paper, but also (increasingly, mostly) in a wide variety of other ways, by software agents as well as software-assisted individuals: aural consumption, on-the-fly translation, automated processing for discovery, search, summarization, topic analysis, remixing, and other uses. While eBook websites and apps are designed for human users, the underlying content they traffic in must be structured appropriately for these functions to be enabled, and for content to flow across systems and platforms. This talk will cover challenges and emerging solutions for representing publication-level content as interoperable machine-processable data that also facilitates delivering rich, interactive experiences.

John Maxwell, Simon Fraser University, and Haig Armen, Lift Studios
The Craft of the Book in the Age of the Web

There seems to be a fair bit of consensus in this community that books need browsers; the bigger question is whether browsers need books? The web is boundless; James Bridle and others have made a compelling argument that tells us that literature has moved beyond the work, and now resides in the Network. But as teachers—John in publishing and Haig in design—we worry sometimes that publishing and the tradition of the book are parting ways. There is a vast and valuable craft tradition in and around the book. Publishing is and has always been a craft–in a special category distinct from both art and industry. A craft is taught, and learned; it is collaborative: sometimes between master and apprentice; sometimes between peers; sometimes between creators and readers, too. What makes a craft tradition possible is a common language and the possibility of an ongoing discourse. In our teaching, this is foundational: the common discourse which shapes and enables practice, and is in turn shaped by it. Have we lost sight of the craft tradition of the age of the web? If so, what happens to that wealth of knowledge and wisdom? Or is that tradition migrating to new contexts—in which case, what is lost and what is gained in translation?

Further reading:

Books in Browsers. 2014 abstracts.

Brian O’Leary ‘Context, not Container

Hugh McGuire ‘ Why the Book and the Internet will Merge

Ricci, S. (2012). Books in Browsers Day 1 Recap. Available online: http://www.digitalpubbing.com/books-in-browsers-day-1-recap/

Ricci, S. (2012). Books in Browsers Day 2 Recap. Available online: http://www.digitalpubbing.com/books-in-browsers-recap-day-2/

McCoy, B. (2013). The Inhuman Future of Digital Reading. Books in Browsers. Video available online: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=kOMBeq7H1A4&list=PLhuFVlhLf9BlgJJ2Smx2p2sIdqWwDbEls&index=6 (Talk starts at 50m:50s)

Maxwell, J. & Armen, H. (2013). The Craft of the Book in the Age of the Web. Video available online: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ZyVTQ-N16N4&list=PLhuFVlhLf9BlgJJ2Smx2p2sIdqWwDbEls#t=250 (Talk starts at 04m:10s )


  1. This includes footnotes, annotations, external references and so forth

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