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Institute for the Future of the Book

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The Institute for the Future of the Book was founded in 2004. The work of the Institute is funded by The Macarthur Foundation, The Mellon Foundation, and the two host-institutions, The Annnenberg Center for Communication at the University of Southern California and Columbia University. The following is taken from the original proposal to The Macarthur Foundation.



For more than 500 years, books —printed pages bound together — have served as the central mechanism for storing and transmitting knowledge.

Their effectiveness derives from:

• portability

• relative ease of manufacture and distribution

• authority — the permanence of the object confers confidence in authorship

• ease of reference — the division of a book into pages enables a “conversation” about the contents to take place over space and time

• random access — a reader may absorb the contents at whatever rate and in whatever order she likes

Over the next several decades, electronic, screen-based technologies will emerge which preserve all that is good and wonderful about printed books but which add profoundly powerful new capabilities. For example, future books will:

• allow authors to express ideas using audio, video and simulations in addition to text and graphics.

• contain significant and direct links to materials stored elsewhere on the internet.

• create a community of readers and authors by enabling people reading the same document or exploring the same subject area to connect to each other directly over the internet.

While it may be argued that the form of printed books (pages bound together by a spine) was inevitable, the new screen-based books has no such inevitable physically-imposed form. The challenge confronting us is to develop new forms that empower both authors and readers and enhance intellectual and social discourse throughout society.

We are inventing the future of human communication, and we need to do a good job of it.

The mission of the Institute for the Future of the Book is to play an important role in developing the form and function of books in the digital era.

The institute will be a place where artists, scholars, and technologists collaborate to address a broad range of questions, such as:

• how to define and assure authority of the text within a dynamic medium

• how readers know “where they are” within the more complex structures afforded by digital books

• how to integrate text with audio and video so that they do not work at cross-purposes. (This is key to the development of new rhetorical devices at the center of intellectual discourse.)

• working to define new ways of navigating and parsing complex “data spaces” – e.g. what high-level alternatives to the index might be devised?

• typography and iconography designed specifically for the screen

• in a wired world, how to encourage and enable readers to link to each other and to the author

• what is the best way to take several thousand years of analog culture into the digital era in a way that respects the original form but that also exploits the potential of emerging technologies to help readers see, hear, and read better?

The work of the institute will fall into three areas:

• Tool-making

Print culture owes its richness in large part to the fact that the tools required to write are simple and ubiquitous. If a similarly broad-based culture is to arise around screen-based electronic books, we need completely new, easy to use tools that will allow large numbers of people to author complex multimedia documents without the services of a programmer.

• Inspiring examples

The Institute will work to develop fully-realized dynamic, interactive digital documents that will serve as exemplars. As funds allow, visiting artists and technologists will be invited to the institute to work on new forms.

• Summarizing lessons and encouraging discussion

The institute will host symposia and conferences to encourage vigorous discussion of the key problems involved in the development of digital books.

It will also publish a web-based electronic journal to summarize, compare and disseminate advances in the field.

The institute is hosted by The Annenberg Center for Communication at USC.

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