The Death of the Page

You can see it com­ing: “pages,” as a form of cita­tion, are dead. And you can see why. With an elec­tronic text, the reader can change the font size almost with­out limit. That makes pag­i­na­tion use­less, and prob­a­bly obsolete.

In Eng­lish “page” has mul­ti­ple related mean­ings. The word can mean a young male ser­vant as well as the page of a book, and they both appear to orig­i­nate in the latin word for ser­vant, per­haps because your ser­vant wrote things down on a page of paper or or per­haps because writ­ten pages were both ser­vants and our mas­ters. The medieval page was an appren­tice, on the first rung to mas­tery and knight­hood. A grad stu­dent is an appren­tice among pages who must mas­ter the book.

Page” retains its con­no­ta­tions of mas­tery and even, in the form of Con­gres­sional pages, gains a slight after­taste of scan­dal: it’s not an acci­dent that the “page­boy” hair­cut con­veys an ele­ment of sex­ual ambiguity.


You can have some­one “paged,” mean­ing I assume orig­i­nally “found by a page” but also mean­ing sum­moned, as in “pag­ing Dr. Howard,” like a page. There used to be “pagers” used in place of cell phones, again to sum­mon the wearer but also to take the place of the sum­moner. Thus page as a verb, “pag­ing ” through a book or a list. Hav­ing some­one paged turns them into a unit of a col­lec­tive in the way “pag­i­na­tion” turns a mass of text into sin­gle dis­crete units.

I liked pages–I’m an invet­er­ate dog-earer of pages. I used them in class all the time: “as Foner says on page 267…” The page was a phys­i­cal reflec­tion of the way a book built its effects, like stones in a wall: indi­vid­u­ally insignif­i­cant, col­lec­tively they built some­thing. They imposed a sequen­tial nar­ra­tive form, so they forced their own logic on the reader. You could refer back, or jump ahead, but the “next, next, next” logic of the page struc­ture worked its way into your brain. Once you grasped it, you could jump ahead, or you could sur­ren­der to the foot­step rhythm of the page, or you could use the pages to call atten­tion to the struc­ture of the whole.

I have a Kin­dle, and love it. It freed me from the lit­tle voice that whis­pered “where are you going to put that” every time I bought a book. But it’s really lousy for cita­tion. “Go to loca­tion 2465″ is a poor sub­sti­tute. You have to engage the “go to” fea­ture and then type in 2465 and then sub­mit and then scan til you find it. It’s awkward.

Of course, so was scan­ning through pages, till I mas­tered the skill. If read­ing, and pages, were nat­ural we wouldn’t have to teach it. And as sug­gested above the word “page” is inex­tri­ca­bly linked to hier­ar­chy and mas­tery. The medieval page sys­tem looked great to those who made it to “knight.” Sen­a­tors love con­gres­sional pages, who they ide­ally see as appren­tices being men­tored. Peo­ple who mas­ter the page sys­tem gen­er­ally  love the page system.

So what direc­tion should we take, with schol­arly mate­r­ial in dig­i­tal form? Repli­cate the book, or adopt a new par­a­digm? I think it has to be “adopt a new par­a­digm,” because the “page” was not sim­ply a piece of paper with writ­ing on it: it was and is embed­ded in a larger sys­tem of mean­ing and author­ity. If we aban­don phys­i­cal pages we have to adopt a new way of think­ing about and com­mu­ni­cat­ing meaning.

The Kin­dle kind of repro­duces the page, and there is some­thing sat­is­fy­ing about the click click click of “next page” to advance through the book. “Pre­vi­ous page” is where you run into trou­ble. It’s not a good tool for refer­ring back. The Ipad reader dou­bles down on the page for­mat, it’s pret­tier, but no less irri­tat­ing if you have to cite something.

The future will have to involve not cit­ing pages, but sim­ply point­ing to the text. Instead of direct­ing schol­ars to a spe­cific page, the text itself will enable search­ing to find a spe­cific word or phrase. Prob­a­bly read­ers will have voice recog­ni­tion, so you can speak a phrase and go right to it. But I think beyond that it must mean some re-ordering of the hier­ar­chi­cal rela­tion­ship of pages to readers.

14 Comments

  • Ama­zon has belat­edly added page num­bers to the Kin­dle, though only about 25% of my books are cur­rently sup­ported. These num­bers cor­re­spond, in the­ory to the print ver­sion, though over time this is actu­ally really stu­pid, since as you note it’s a unit of mea­sure that will only become increas­ingly arcane and irrelevant.

    My friend Marin Dacos has done a lot of think­ing on this front. He runs revues.org, a sort of sprawl­ing open-access French JSTOR that has designs on get­ting even larger. They have long used only para­graphs for num­ber­ing, because it’s the only reli­able unit, at least until we stop using para­graphs. Other places, like His­tory Coop­er­a­tive, do some­thing sim­i­lar, but our French cousins have made it look nice. Check out this sam­ple arti­cle to see what I mean. They’re also adding EPUB and PDF ver­sions for Kin­dle, etc.

  • Dig it! that looks great. Plus the para­graph is your friend, what with it’s mini paper struc­ture. “The Jour­nal of really good paragraphs…”

  • If only those para­graphs were tar­getable via http://ahrf.revues.org/5883#para1 (or some­thing like that) we could apply a lot of exist­ing web pat­terns to cit­ing them.

  • Oh, and I’ll add that obvi­ously the Zotero team has thought more about cita­tion than prob­a­bly the entire cur­rent his­tory pro­fes­sion. It’s all a bunch of eso­teric bull­shit, so mov­ing to some­thing else, like para­graph num­bers, isn’t par­tic­u­larly impor­tant from a philo­soph­i­cal or tech­ni­cal point of view.

  • yes as a tech­ni­cal prob­lem it’s rel­a­tively triv­ial, but of course it’s what’s called a “mind­set” which is more than just habits, its a struc­ture of author­ity fou­cault etc etc.

  • I think it’s pre­ma­ture to call the page dead. Right now, e-readers are toys for peo­ple with money. I can get a paper­back novel new at a book­store for $7.99. With a lit­tle more effort, I can get the same book for $1–2 at a used book store or for free at my local library. A his­tor­i­cal mono­graph, even new and in hard­cover, gen­er­ally costs between $35-$45, and the same amount of effort will save a lot of money.

    Kin­dles are adver­tised on Amazon.com right now for $139 — $379: just the PLATFORM, not includ­ing books. Yes, books like _Nicholas Nickleby_ are free (although why Amazon.com cat­e­go­rized it as “non-fiction his­tory” is beyond me), but what about Erik Larson’s _The Devil in the White City_? It’s $9.99 to pur­chase the eBook. But in less than a minute, I’ve found a used copy online for $.99, a new copy for $5.79, and it’s in 3 libraries I reg­u­larly use. And I know it’s a book sev­eral friends have read and enjoyed enough to pur­chase — I can bor­row a copy with­out wor­ry­ing about library fines.

    If we step away from the eco­nomic con­sid­er­a­tions, con­sis­tency across plat­forms becomes the biggest hur­dle fac­ing elec­tronic books. If you have a book on your Kin­dle, and I have it on a Nook, and some­one else has a hard copy, can we all find the same sec­tion of text? If we can, it isn’t easy. I graded a paper recently where the stu­dent read the assigned text on an e-reader that did not include pages. All zie could pro­vide was the chap­ter — rather unhelp­ful because I then had to page through a 25 page chap­ter look­ing for one phrase.

    We are mov­ing to a dig­i­tal world, but we also need to rec­og­nize that just because some­thing is new, that doesn’t mean it’s BETTER. Progress isn’t always good.

  • James Goffin wrote:

    Er, sorry for the seman­tic pedantry but progress *is* always good. Change might not be.
    The page has been dead in the sense of a ref­er­ence tool for years. You say you graded a paper and only had chap­ter ref­er­ences but page num­bers would only be more use­ful if you had exactly the same edi­tion as the stu­dent.
    Books get printed in hard­back and paper­back, with dif­fer­ent type­set­ting and dif­fer­ent dimen­sions.
    Plays have never been ref­er­enced by page num­ber.
    All that said, pages just rep­re­sent a con­ve­nient unit and so pages will con­tinue. That their size may vary doesn’t really mat­ter — they always have.

  • @James: Progress, in the major­ity of def­i­n­i­tions found in a very quick search online, merely ref­er­ences _moving forward_. Tell me, if you were on the lip of the Grand Canyon, fac­ing the abyss, would mov­ing for­ward — pro­gress­ing — be a good thing? Only if you want to com­mit suicide.

    In all fair­ness, one def­i­n­i­tion (out of 12) explic­itly defined progress as “con­tin­u­ous improve­ment: He shows progress in his mus­cu­lar coor­di­na­tion.” Can we agree that words have dif­fer­ent mean­ings in dif­fer­ent con­texts? Another ref­er­enced bio­log­i­cal “per­fec­tion” over time; how­ever, deter­min­ing bio­log­i­cal per­fec­tion requires the use of hind­sight. E-readers are hap­pen­ing NOW and we do not have the ben­e­fit of hindsight.

    My ref­er­ence to the chap­ter cita­tion was unclear — the only avail­able source was the assigned text­book, and all stu­dents have the same edi­tion. I rec­og­nize the dif­fer­ences between edi­tions can be a prob­lem — it’s the low-tech ver­sion of the dif­fer­ent plat­form prob­lem. Your point about dif­fer­ent edi­tions merely reit­er­ates the cross-platforming issues using a dif­fer­ent tech­nol­ogy for an example.

  • In my defense I wasn’t argu­ing that the death of the page was progress, just that it was a change that would amount to more than juts “how do we cite this.”

    Hav­ing been doing this for twenty year,s I’ve accu­mu­lated a lot of books, enough so that they are a big phys­i­cal prob­lem and a Kin­dle is much cheaper than adding a room to your house!

    Still use the library though

  • @Mike — I agree that there’s a shift com­ing, if it hasn’t already started. I’m wary of the “must have shiny new thingy” men­tal­ity, which is almost always attached to the “shiny new thingy will save the UNIVERSE” men­tal­ity. You addressed one of my major com­plaints about e-readers: try­ing to find the same phrase some­one else found becomes extremely dif­fi­cult. But the Inter­webs is full of “shiny new thingy will save us all” types, and I wanted to explic­itly point out that the shiny new thingy will NOT, in fact, save us all just yet.

    But you’ve also re-emphasized my point about the cost: I can’t afford an e-reader (due to reces­sion woes we’ve all heard a mil­lion times). It’s just too expen­sive. AND space is absolutely an issue — between the two of us my part­ner and I have about 1500 vol­umes in a home that’s less than 1000 sq ft. We have book swaps and all the left­overs go to my local library, and try not to pur­chase pop­u­lar fic­tion because that’s much eas­ier to find in the library. Sure, a Kin­dle is cheaper than adding a room — but my choices aren’t about buy­ing a Kin­dle to save some space. They’re about not buy­ing a Kin­dle so I can pay my power bill. It’s the stark real­ity fac­ing a lot of us who, 5 years ago, were all on board the “shiny new thingy” bandwagon.

    (I’m still chew­ing on the rela­tion­ships between pages in a book to social hier­ar­chy. Very thought pro­vok­ing. I may have to get back to you on that…)

  • The flip side of Shadow Boxer’s point about money would be my cur­rent project, in which I’m using hun­dreds of public-domain texts, prac­ti­cally all dig­i­tized, because Google Books et al are free, and I have no travel money, no stipends, no RAs, and in 9 weeks, no job and lim­ited interlibrary-loan priv­i­leges. There is no way I could do this with­out the shiny new (nearly) free things.

    Most of those dig­i­tized books are paged in some way, but not all, and it has occurred to me more than once how silly it is to be cit­ing pages in a book that is and has been for­mat­ted in mul­ti­ple ways over the decades or cen­turies and that is in any case full-text search­able. It’s par­tic­u­larly silly when I find a ref­er­ence to a text and want to track it down; I almost never am look­ing at the same edi­tion that’s cited, and so the page num­bers are use­less to me. The key to all this is full-text search­ing. I can’t see what good an elec­tronic for­mat is with­out it, honestly.

    But of course if you are using a print book, you’ll have a ter­ri­ble time track­ing down a cita­tion with­out a page num­ber: elim­i­nat­ing page num­bers from cita­tions does rather burn the bridge behind us in our march to progress (or not to progress, as it may be). We seem to be doing that in a lot of ways with infor­ma­tion tech­nol­ogy, and it wor­ries me.

  • We already have a model for page­less, edition-independent cita­tions: the inter­nal divi­sions used for cit­ing the Bible, Shake­speare, clas­si­cal authors, church fathers, and so on. It’s sim­ple and clear, but means that mod­ern works will need to be given num­bered divi­sions such as book | chap­ter | para­graph and the like.

  • Mack Holt wrote:

    Sorry to join this dis­cus­sion do late, but I only just dis­cov­ered it and the blog. The angst over the page, how­ever, makes me think back to the time before there were pages, when all texts were writ­ten as scrolls. The “birth of the page,” as it were was really just a by-product of the par­a­digm shift from scroll to codex. The codex was just so much more search­able; that was its great­est ben­e­fit. It wasn’t the inven­tion of the page that made it so, but the tech­no­log­i­cal shift that cre­ated pages by fold­ing up a scroll and bind­ing it at the edges. The same is true of the shift from print to dig­i­tal texts–they’re just so much more search­able that the loss of the page seems almost irrel­e­vant. What is lost, how­ever, is the phys­i­cal sen­sa­tion of read­ing from a codex held in the hand, a very dif­fer­ent expe­ri­ence from read­ing a Kin­dle or read­ing a lap­top screen. Will we get used to it even­tu­ally? Prob­a­bly. Is this progress? Yes, in at least some ways includ­ing search­a­bil­ity. And for what it’s worth, before there were pages (i.e., back to the scroll of the 3rd cen. CE and ear­lier), texts were cited by para­graph. Plus ça change …

  • Great points. I always look back to your class when these argu­ments arise. I think for a lot of us, books as phys­i­cal objects have a strong emo­tional fea­ture — par­tic­u­larly his­to­ri­ans who dream of hav­ing their first book pub­lished, in a codex, that they can phys­i­cally hold. That is what is hard­est to give up…that and not hav­ing to plug in a paper a book!

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