The future of reading

Reading is something we typically do alone—holding a book, gazing at a computer screen, thumbing through a newspaper. Yet now people are talking about “social reading” as a shared activity, enabled by the proliferation of devices and software that combine reading with community.

I recently came across a proposed taxonomy of social reading, from book groups to online discussions to collaborative authoring. Authoring? Well, with dynamic texts and increasing interaction between authors and readers, the distinction between reading and writing starts to fade away.

One way to enable social reading is to integrate the text with user-contributed comments. CommentPress and are WordPress plugins that allow comments on a per-paragraph basis, placing them in a sidebar so you can view them alongside the relevant content (instead of scrolling to the bottom). In browsing examples of such content, such as the taxonomy mentioned above or an online version of Candide, I find myself intrigued but also a bit mentally fragmented. Jumping back and forth between the main text and the comments mashes them together, which perhaps is the point, or maybe reading nonlinear content like this just takes some practice. It certainly does give the feeling of being in a group, discussing the text, rather than being a solo reader. I’d probably find this most useful for non-fiction, when a critical analysis or discussion of the topics is a higher priority. For fiction reading, I’m happy to dive in and be immersed all on my own, at least for the first pass.

Yet although these plugins (and the taxonomy) have been around since at least 2010, this was the first time I’d encountered them. An even older article, from 2009 (The Future of Reading by Tom Peters), discusses the evolving nature of reading, including a term that was new to me: “skimmy-dipping” (the process of browsing a list of links or citations and dipping into the interesting ones at different depths). While the term was new, the concept was not—this describes the way I process just about every Google search I do, especially those at

Peters’s article includes this great quote: “Reading is one human activity that is at once both intensely cerebral and lusciously sensory.” He also touches on the social reading idea with “In the good old days, first you read the book, then you discussed it with fellow readers. Now it is becoming a single, combined process.”

His article was published by the Library Journal, and his primary audience was librarians. This paragraph struck me as the most salient and interesting part:

“The impact of these new forms of reading on libraries and librarianship could be profound. For example, they may force us to confront the archival impulse and mission to preserve and protect. Books may cease to be fixed utterances that, once published (whatever that may come to mean), begin a long trip to eternity during which any changes in the text or the text-bearing-device are perceived as crimes against nature and against the inviolable text. Books may become more like fleeting communal experiences, with little or no promise of sustained integrity. Whatever their makeup, they will be books, and they will be read.”

I was inspired to look up these articles after a colloquium talk Tom Peters presented as part of the freely available SJSU SLIS Colloquium series. I highly recommend the iTunes subscription, which provides audio (good for commutes) or video (good when you want to see the slides) versions of these talks. From this and other talks in the series, my emerging view of librarians is that rather than clinging to physical books and bemoaning the advent of new technology, they are excited about the possibility of new ways of engaging with content and readers, and they’re industrious about staying on top of the latest developments. This makes my upcoming MLIS adventure all the more exciting!

This captures the way I feel about my own personal future of reading:

Imagine a web that extends world-wide…

There was a time before the Internet—and it wasn’t that long ago. Consider excerpts of this 1984 article from the Whole Earth Catalog, titled “Telecommunicating”:

Someday everybody will communicate by computer, according to an emerging army of dreamers.
Less expensive than national networks are local bulletin boards […] To give an example of the bulletin boards’ power; David Hughes of Colorado Springs entered onto his computer bulletin board the text of a pernicious city council bill outlawing professional work at home. Instead of tracking the bill down at City Hall, residents could dial in at their convenience and read the bill at home. Within a week, Hughes had gathered enough angry readers to storm the next city council meeting and influence council members to defeat the measure.
Programs are finally emerging that treat telecommunicating as a human activity instead of a technical obstacle course.

So much so that we don’t even use the term “telecommunicating” at all. We’re just communicating.

NPR’s Science Friday broadcast an episode in 1993 called “The Future of the Internet” that is well worth the listen. The episode itself made history by being broadcast on the Internet, instead of just by radio. Today, the topics and the way they are covered sound so… quaint. Compuserve! WAIS?

The opinions being expressed are enthusiastic, sometimes prescient, and other times (from today’s perspective) naive. “I found a complete archive of jokes on the Internet in under an hour!” “The magic number is 64,000 bits per second.”

Ira: “Let’s make it clear to everyone listening that you’re not on a telephone, are you?”
Caller Tom: “No, I’m sitting in front of a workstation, with a microphone…”

I did like the discussion of “information anxiety” (they had that back then too? ;) ) over the “glut” of information available (from the 420 different databases WAIS was indexing. Oh, my word.).

“One of the things we’re doing is learning how to ignore information, and that’s one of the most important things the Internet will let you do. […] You want your machine to be working for you … finding the right stuff. There’s just way too much out there already. So going and filtering through, searching, finding just the issues that you care about — your machine is starting to know a lot about you. It knows what you like, what you don’t like, what you’ve read, what you didn’t read.”

I wish we could say we’ve solved that problem now! Even with RSS feeds, collaborative filtering, and various learning systems, I still feel inundated by all there is to read, and without a good solution for sorting and prioritizing it. Email alone…!

Chinese Edible Dogs

Yeah, I blinked at the headline, too. One of my projects at the Monrovia Library is scanning old newspapers (on microfilm) into digital files for easy later access (and hopefully indexing). This item came from the July 2, 1915 issue of the Monrovia Messenger:

Interesting slice of history!

Riding in a charrette

During a work meeting, someone referred to attending an “NSF charrette,” and everyone else blinked in confusion until someone asked, “What’s a charrette?”

It turns out that this is a word for “an intense period of design activity” (per wikipedia) and in this case refers to a meeting of minds devoted to focused work on a particular problem or program. Apparently it is often used in the context of land use planning or urban planning.

But the etymology is where it really gets fun. “Charrette” is French for “cart” or “chariot,” and as wikipedia explains:

“It was not unusual for student architects to continue working furiously, at the last minute, on the illustrations for their design presentations, even while riding in the school cart (en charrette) through the streets of Paris en route to submit the projects to their professors. Hence, the term metamorphosed into the current design-related usage in conjunction with working right up until a deadline.

An alternative explanation is that at the end of a class in the studio a charrette would be wheeled among the student artists to pick up their work for review while they, each working furiously to apply the finishing touch, were said to be working en charrette.

In the 16th, 17th, and 18th century when travel took long periods, a Charrette referred to long carriage rides in which politicians and policy makers would be sequestered together in order to collaborate in solving a set problem over the duration of their journey. This origin is most similar to the current usage of the word in the design world.”

(Awesome graphic — wish I could have found some credits for it!)

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