Last week, Lisa Bayer passed along a link to a Chronicle of Higher Education article by Tushar Rae about the issue of citation standards for e-books: since e-text reflows based on a user’s preference settings, what’s the best way to list page numbers in our citations of such text? William Rankin, director of educational innovation at Abilene Christian University, gets the last lines of the article:

Citations have always been symbolic . . . I don’t think I need symbolic anymore. I want an actual link.

Right on.

Doesn’t page numbering seem like a problem unique to this moment in history? Push the calendar forward 10 years or so, and everything will be digitized and interconnected, and these problems will all be discussed in the past tense. Implicit in this is the passing of the page as an organizing principle.

Among the UIP journals that I manage, the Journal of American Ethnic History has the most interesting citation problems. Articles with standard citations are rare, and more common are ones that require a large measure of improvisation to account for archival sources, some of which were established before the electric grid. Fortunate for me, other professionals compose, copy edit, and proofread these citations, but it’s fascinating to manage the consensus-building process that brings it all together. These special citations point to locations in space, not text. “In this city, in this building, in this room, in this carton, in this folder, in this document, is this anti-war petition” sort of thing. On long days, I’m tempted to replace CMS with GPS.

The Rae article prompts us to imagine what might replace the page in the evolution of academic research. My first guess is the panel—a digital plane of any size encoded with text, graphics, video, user comments, blinking lights, and whatever else comes along. Research panels could be developed like cities, and citations of panels could replace page numbers with vertical and horizontal coordinates similar to those used on street maps, making the cited text into little niche neighborhoods within an article’s overall city plan. Hyperlinks finally living up to their prefixes by seeming like forms of teleportation. // More: Layout templates based on the principles of landscape architecture. Research panels that grow metropolitan in size and spawn suburbs of ancillary data sets. Museums presenting collections of fine research prints that visitors might stand before and ponder. Meta-analyses that deconstruct a text like a monster marching through SimCity.

Perhaps scholarship of the future will jetison spatial design entirely and take the form of hyperdimensional objects, the shape of which changes as their authors change, and the form of which is not defined by the protocols of the hypertext markup language—scholarship as a ghostly weft passing through living thoughts that transform as we grow and age. “Encountering the text” will give way to haunting the thought-form, and knowledge will seem unmistakably organic, interactive, and awe-inspiring. // Every new idea will hold out the possibility of literally changing everything we know. // The totemic image of this new age might be the mycelial mat—the living network of underground fungal fibers that form symbiotic chemical communication networks across whole forests and do much to define the shape and health of the forest ecology.

The largest organism in the world is a 2400-year-old mycelia in Oregon. It is 2200 acres in size. It produces honey mushrooms in the fall.

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Update: The problem of page numbering in e-books was already finding its solution coincident to the publication of the Rae article—it appears that a software fix will display standardized page numbers regardless of user preference settings. Woot.

I don’t think this diminishes my fungus proposal one bit.

Link to the Chronicle story.
Link to JAEH.

(Image: Honey Mushrooms, a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 2.0, image from AnneTanne’s photostream)
(Image: Chataway’s Map of Winnipeg (1919), a Creative Commons Attribution 2.0, image from Manitoba Historical Maps’s photostream)

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