Libri elettronici: problemi e prospettive

Gino Roncaglia


The use of the expression 'electronic book', or of the more widespread contraction e-book, is anything but unequivocal, and the definitions proposed are not without their problematic aspects.
On the whole, however, whoever speaks of an e-book usually seems to refer to quite an extensive acceptance of the term, attributing the qualification of electronic book to any complete, organic and sufficiently long text, perhaps accompanied by descriptive metadata, available in any electronic format which allows - among other things - its on-line distribution, and its reading through some kind of hardware device, be it dedicated or not.
The diversified but at least for some aspects converging view of the definitions of e-book analyzed in the article are contrasted by a perhaps minority position, that of those who refuse the very idea of an electronic book, defending the theory whereby only a printed book can legitimately be called a "book". The products of electronic publishing - considering their special characteristics and potential - could not in principle even be compared with the traditional definition of "book".
The position that I wish to uphold here is to some extent intermediate between the two theories just summarized. The refusal of the 'extreme' positions is born from a basic assumption: the idea according to which the body of practices and theoretical models that form the inheritance of (at least) five centuries of 'book culture' should not be either forgotten or abandoned, nor should it be considered an unchangeable fact, but it can and should rather continue its evolution - in forms that are certainly partly new and unexpected - even in the age of digital media.
In my opinion, an electronic text alone, even if it corresponds to the textual contents of a printed book, is not itself an electronic book: in order to be able to speak of an e-book, it must have come about through suitable interfaces that represent a natural evolution of those to which the book on paper has accustomed us (and therefore not just a technological evolution of the desktop PC): instruments that are portable, light, easy on the eyes, devoid of cables and electric wires, if possible not too expensive and not too fragile. The existence of good (and easy) instruments for reading electronic texts is, from this perspective, an essential prerequisite not only for the commercial diffusion of electronic books, but even for the theoretical reflection on their characteristics.
If this is the case, why, once the ergonomic problems mentioned earlier have been overcome, should we not consider using electronic readers for reading more traditional texts?. From the observations carried out in the paper there emerges the proposal of a definition - certainly still quite unsatisfactory from various viewpoints - of the concept of an electronic book that is partly different from that mentioned at the beginning: a definition that accompanies the consideration of an e-book as a digital object with the pragmatic definition of the reading interface and of the reading devices. On the basis of this definition we could define an electronic book, or e-book, as an electronic text that is reasonably lengthy, complete and unitary ('monograph'), duly codified and possibly accompanied by descriptive metainformation, accessible through a hardware device and software interface that permit easy and simple reading and the capacity to give access to all the types of textual organization typical of book culture, permitting their complete and satisfactory use. An electronic book may be able to support hypertextual and multimedia instruments (and in that case it will make it possible to create and read new forms of text), but it will above all have to allow the easy reading of a linear text, offering tools for rapid note-taking, underlining, use of bookmarks, etc., besides the instruments of research and navigation typical of the digital format.
The general considerations on the e-book concept are followed by an overview of the current situation of the e-book sector, of the main reading devices and the main formats in existence, of the solutions aimed at its use on dedicated reading devices (or in any case ones that are compatible with such use), rather than of those orientated towards the better printing of the electronic text or its better reading on the screen of a traditional desk computer.
Finally, the author examines the body of problems that arise for the world of libraries from the birth and likely diffusion of electronic books. Among the most important matters, those that will certainly have to be faced are the preservation of the electronic books (which regards, it is worth remembering, not just the text but also the instruments for its decoding and reading), the relative catalographic criteria, the accessibility of the texts and the hardware and software requirements necessary in a library to allow their consultation, the connected and not simple problems of management of the rights.

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