Monday, January 3, 2011

References without page numbers

James Robertson asks how we can reference a part of a book, if we read the book on a Kindle or other electronic medium:
...what does a page number even mean? It should be simple to graft the physical form page number into the metadata, but as we go forward, there may well be books for which no physical form exists. What then?
This isn't a new problem, but it's exacerbated by current norms of book publishing. Printed books often don't number their sub-entities at a finer grained level than chapters, so if you don't have the physical version in front of you, all you can cite is the chapter. Worse, if someone else has a physical version, and you're reading the electronic version, it's problematic if they give you a cite for a page number.

It's an old problem, though, and it has a lot of old solutions. It comes up any time the same text is printed multiple times with different page numbers. Two examples would be codes of law and the Christian Bible. If you want to cite a part of one of these, it's poor form to use a page number, because that page number is only valid for a specific printing. You instead make reference to the detailed numbers that have been applied to the sub-entities of the text.

Going forward, it would help if books started containing more fine-grained numberings as a matter of course. In theory we could instead use character count or word counts, but that has two problems. It is prone to differences in convention, e.g. how many characters is a paragraph indent, and how many words are in counter-revolutionary. Worse, it doesn't work well for people using the print version, who would need a specially printed version with the position counts on the bottom of each page or in the margins.

Bill Venners foresaw this problem for Programming in Scala, and he was careful to publish the ebook version such that it has the exact same page numbers as the printed book. This is possible because the ebook is a PDF file, and PDF files have the same pagination on every device. In addition to the consistent page numbering, the book includes fine-grained number of all the sections, figures, tables, and larger programming listings, so you can also cite things that way. In short, feel free to copiously cite parts of Programming in Scala. Don't worry about the ebook readers--they'll be able to look up your references just fine.

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