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.


  • 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, 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 (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 right now for $139 – $379: just the PLATFORM, not including books. Yes, books like _Nicholas Nickleby_ are free (although why 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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