MLA 2011 Paper for “What the Digital Does to Reading”

I gave two papers at the 2011 meeting of the Modern Language Association in Los Angeles. The one posted below was co-authored with Renee Hudson from UCLA and was for a panel called “What the Digital Does to Reading,” organized by the MLA Committee on Information Technology. Our thinking on this topic began as part of a research paper we co-authored for The Transliteracies Project and we are continuing to develop the ideas in the paper for eventual publication.

The second MLA presentation, “A Media Ecological Approach to the Digital Humanities, or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love this Dynamic Field,” was for the panel “The Institution(alization) of Digital Humanities, organized by the Discussion Group on Computer Studies in Language and Literature.

Social Book Catalogs and Reading: Shifting Paradigms, Humanizing Databases

Co-authored by Renee Hudson and Kim A. Knight

Our remarks today focus on the role social book catalogs – popular platforms of which include Goodreads, LibraryThing, weRead, and Visual Bookshelf – play in the construction of a user’s online identity. We contend that social book catalogs mark a fundamental transition in the nature of the catalog from a mere finding list to a marker of experience such that reading becomes a public index of the self. Further, we argue that with the rise of online environments, reading as part of one’s subjectivity becomes explicitly articulated through the cataloging interface and in terms of how users on these sites relate to one another. Thus, while social book catalogs contribute to a user’s online identity, the new relationship between the catalog and the user changes the nature of the catalog itself in a feedback system of signification. We will begin with a brief overview of a fairly typical site, Goodreads, in order to highlight the features that are most salient to our thinking.With the relationship between the user and the catalog in mind, let’s take a look at some of the key features of social book catalogs. When I sign in, I can view a news feed of my friends’ activities, along with a list of books I am currently reading, and a set of links to some of the social activities I can perform on Goodreads, like view groups I have joined and send messages.

Screenshot of Goodreads home page

Goodreads home page

If we take a closer look at the news feed, we can see how social book catalogs become a marker of experiences, both on and offline. For instance, from this screen shot we can see that part of my friend Rachel’s online identity is that she became friends with Kate on December 16, while my friend Sarah rated a book on the 17th, and my friend Amelia answered a polling question and added books to her “to-read” list on the 15th. By participating in Goodreads activities, my friends illustrate the relationship between their offline and online identities such that private reading acts become public news items that exist as part of one’s constructed, online identity.

Goodreads news feed

Goodreads News Feed

If we now turn to a random snapshot of my own reading list, from May 2007, we can see a list of books I added and the dates I finished them. In this way, my collection becomes a chronological database of my reading experiences such that I can access a much richer personal history, particularly when a social book catalog like Goodreads is integrated with a broader social network, like Facebook.

Goodreads personal reading list

Goodreads Reading List

This sort of integration means that rather than only seeing my personal history as it relates to reading experiences, I can see the Goodreads aspect of my online identity along with other pieces of information I choose to share on a site like Facebook, such as photo albums and status updates. While we’ve thus far demonstrated the types of actions a user can perform on a site like Goodreads, we would now like to turn to a closer examination of the relationship between the catalog as database and the user.

Our inquiry today centers less on how the individual reads in the online environment, and more on the way in which the data produced by the act of cataloging may be read as a narrative of the user.  Lev Manovich positions narrative as just one means of accessing data among many others, and he argues that narrative and database are fundamentally at odds (“Database” 41).   In contrast, Christiane Paul writes, “However, databases do lend themselves to a categorization of information and narratives that can then be filtered to create meta-narratives about the construction and cultural specifics of the original material” (101).  She refers to TextARC as a paradigmatic example of a database about which one may construct a meta-narrative.  While this is not narrative in the traditional sense of “story,” Paul’s argument for meta-narrative acknowledges that the database may be “read” and that the discrete pieces can be assembled into a larger statement of meaning.  It is Grahame Weinbren, however, who argues for the expressive potential of the database.  He writes, “the idea that there might be an expressive potential to interactivity, that we might be able to use interactivity to represent our worlds, interior and exterior, in ways not before possible has been passed by, largely unexplored” (68).  In this case he refers to the Internet as one large database and wishes to conceptualize interactivity beyond the hypertext link.

The user constructs the social book catalog as that very expression of her interior and exterior worlds. And while the collection of books may not themselves form a narrative, it is possible to “read” them together and form a meta-narrative about the user whose collection is under review. Although Manovich argues that the web operates according to a logic of anti-narrative (“Database” 41), he later writes, “the database of choices from which narrative is constructed (the paradigm) is implicit, while the actual narrative (the syntagm) is explicit. New media reverses this relationship.  Database (the paradigm) is given material existence, while narrative (the syntagm) is dematerialized.  Paradigm is privileged; syntagm is downplayed. Paradigm is real; syntagm is virtual” (“Database” 49). While it is true that paradigm is privileged in the social book catalog and that syntagm is made virtual, this does not mean that syntagm is non-existent.  The syntagm exists, waiting for a willing reader to construct the meta-narrative. Often this meta-narrative is extracted from data sets that are a by-product of some other primary activity. For example, when shopping on, a user leaves a data trail of their browsing practices and final purchase, but shopping is the main goal. In contrast, constructing the database is the primary activity in social book cataloging, thereby lending itself to a meta-narrative about the relationship between catalog and user. Now we will turn to an examination of the nature of the catalog.

In the introduction to Database Aesthetics, Victoria Vesna relates an assignment in which her students are tasked with creating a “database of the self.” As part of the assignment, she poses the following question: “How does one represent the information without dehumanizing it?” In doing so, she notes that some of the considerations for creating such a database include: “Do you use your body parts, clothes, and belongings? Would you include your relations with others as a way to define yourself? Are you an open or closed or semiclosed system? What media do you use and can it be exhibited, archived, and retrieved?” (X). Significantly, the problem of selectivity in this list of questions resonates strongly with reconsiderations of what comprises the catalog, particularly in online environments. Traditional conceptions of the catalog focus on physical objects within a collection, “as a systematic record of the holdings of a collection, its purpose being to enable a user of the collection to find the physical location of information in the collection” (Kilgour 34). In online networked environments, however, this notion of the catalog is immediately called into question by the networked social book catalog. One of the most common networked approaches to cataloging would involve several libraries joining resources about their physical collections to provide their respective communities with greater access to materials. However, on sites like Goodreads, users join together their interests, not necessarily their physical collections. Put another way, the social book catalog does not rely on the physical objects in a collection, but on the books a user has read, but may not own, and books that users would like to read in the future. Seen in this light, a definition for cataloging as it occurs in an online networked environment might look something more along the lines of “the account of books read and to-be-read by a user,” which forms a database of the reading self. This definition privileges the individual reading act over the collection and narrows the record to each user’s experience. By taking an experiential approach, the data in the catalog represents subjectivity in a move that fundamentally humanizes data in that data is significant only insofar as it relates to human experiences. Thus, regarding the question often posed by librarians and catalogers – “Does a catalog need to be anything more than a finding list?” (Malinconico 1) – the catalog becomes much more than a finding tool; it becomes a memory tool, which, in documenting and archiving experience, also constructs identity in online environments. Furthermore, because the catalog as database of the self emerges as part of a larger network of relationships, the catalog is itself defined by these relationships.

Interestingly, then, the active role of the cataloger transforms the reader, whose activity is traditionally marked by leisure. Work become leisure in this environment as the labor of data entry becomes a social activity. The act of reading, coupled with writing reviews, rating books, and socializing with friends in these communities is both a hobby and the information work that users do for themselves and others online. Channeling Benjamin, users work to encourage the inheritance and transmissibility of their collections. He writes:

inheritance is the soundest way of acquiring a collection. For a collector’s attitude toward his possessions stems from an owner’s feeling of responsibility toward his property. Thus it is, in the highest sense, the attitude of an heir, and the most distinguished trait of a collection will always be its transmissibility (Benjamin 66).

The ability to catalog one’s reading experiences online and share them with others thus becomes a streamlined network of traffic between users in which transmissibility is actively sought and implemented. Transmissibility in this context thus transcends the physical artifact in favor of virtual representation by forming connections and communicating evaluative information between “friends.”

Indeed, the easily transmissible nature of social book catalogs is in part facilitated by personal collections. Because each of these collections is imprinted with a user’s experiences, the notion of “the” catalog (exemplified by libraries) transforms into the mentality of “a” catalog, where a multiplicity of records proliferates for each user to browse and enjoy. Significantly, the information shared between users includes enriched content like reviews and rankings, which provides a more holistic, evaluative, view of the information available. In this context, a better definition for the catalog must include the role of the user, such that we now have “a catalog is an account of books read and to-be-read by the user, along with enriched content produced by the user.” Social book cataloging therefore abstracts the notion of traditional cataloging by grounding it within individual experience rather than individual location, an institution, or material possessions. In marking the shift from the catalog to a catalog, and from location to experience, there is then another shift that once again focuses on the role of the user – from passive browser to active participant.

As an active participant, the reader does not just browse collections and find books, but mobilizes her reading experiences into publicly performed acts that contribute to the construction of her identity online. Looking at a site like Goodreads,  a user’s identity is based primarily on book selection and the textual apparatus a user has created to supplement that selection. Seen in this way, a user is judged based on reviews and discussion boards as well as the nature of her collection. For instance, books within a user’s collection serve to mark the identity of the user –  a user who lists several books on pregnancy or child-raising highlights her role as a parent while a user who adds books on Henry James and Marcel Proust marks her identity as a reader of high-brow literature. In this way, the user engages in careful acts of selection when building the catalog. With the user’s construction of self in mind, I would now like to turn to Kim Knight, who will speak more about the implications of this performativity on the catalog.

Closely linked with the construction of the self through the acts of selection noted by Renee is the notion of time. As Vesna describes the motivation to accumulate data as “very much connected to time, to our anxiety over the loss of time, and to the speed at which time travels.  We preserve the all-important self in this age of relentless movement by creating a memory bank that testifies to our existence, to our unique contribution, and the promise to be brought back to life perhaps by someone in the future who can unpack the data and place it in a space of cultural importance” (25).  The online book catalog enacts this preservation of self through the collecting, storing, and archiving of personal libraries. However, rather than solely hoping for a future reconstruction, the user also testifies to her own existence and unique contribution in the present, by placing the catalog online in a social context, amongst a network of like-minded users. The catalog becomes less about access and more about constructing identity via connection.

In redefining “the catalog,” then, it is not only the nature of the catalog that needs redefinition, but also the relationship between users and the catalog. This relationship ultimately determines the cultural and informational work done by the catalog. As Homi Bhabha reflects, referencing Benjamin:

Does the order of books determine the order of things? What kind of history of oneself and one’s times is coded in the collecting of books? Driven by these thoughts, I was led to a somewhat unlikely, yet intriguing, reading of Benjamin’s concluding paragraphs. The inspired flâneur, you will remember, conjures up images of his wandering world through the cosmopolitan disorder and discovery of his old books . . . (Bhabha 5).

The order in which books are displayed in online catalogs is primarily determined by date added and date read, which imprints each book with a user’s temporal experience. In Bhabha’s articulation, the reader-flâneur collects books from around the world. Similarly, online environments, in an arcade of sorts, bring together the urban reader-flâneur by encouraging users to write about their collections and the online reader-flâneur who, by participating in these communities and browsing other collections, wanders the site in search of an old favorite or a new discovery. The nature of finding and experiencing books has changed with social cataloging sites and it is this change that informs our new definition of a catalog.

The obverse of this is that the user’s construction of identity and flâneur experience is framed by the catalog. Returning to Christiane Paul, we note: “The digital medium is not by nature visual, but always consists of a “back end” of algorithms and data sets that remain hidden and a visible “front end” that is experienced by the viewer / user, the latter being produced by the former” (97). Thus the database of the self, constructed in the act of social book cataloging, is shaped by the interface of the cataloging site, the site’s available functions, and by the data sets that form the substance of each catalog.  One of the ways the database shapes the interface in this instance is found in the types of information allowed by the database.  Significantly, none of the current social book catalogs allow a reader to document any reading experience other than a book.  Because the cataloging sites connect to, the Library of Congress, etc., which are all organized around the concept of the “whole” book, users may not enter chapters, essays, journal articles, individual poems or plays, newspaper editorials, media texts, or web texts into their collection.  This emphasis on the bound text not only limits what a user is allowed to enter, but it also establishes an artificial hierarchy which foregrounds “sustained” acts of reading of canonically produced material. Meaningful discourse around pieces of text will have to occur elsewhere.  Immediately, the database of the book cataloging site is restricted by the nature of the database from which it draws its “enriched” content.  The interface, or front end, is framed by the structure of the back end.

Consequently, in the case of the social book catalog, the user is “produced” by the combination of the back and front ends.  Thus the user’s construction of self, via the construction of a catalog, is also limited.  The reader’s list, organized by date read or date entered, is always necessarily incomplete.  While it is naive to think that any person can be wholly and accurately represented in any form, let alone by their online book catalog, the limitations of the database provide an additional set of constraints in the attempt to construct the self.

Now that we have traced the consequences of the database on the database of the self, we would like to consider the construction of the self within the wider discourse network enabled by the library. In Discourse Networks, Friedrich Kittler writes, “All libraries are discourse networks, but all discourse networks are not books” (369).  One might think of the collection of social book cataloging utilities as forming one amorphous discourse network.  Each utility functions as part of a “network of technologies and institutions that allow a given culture to select, store, and process relevant data” (Kittler 369). To this end, the more general social networking sites, such as Facebook, are also an important part of this discourse network.

The discourse network, in any of its forms, is constructed of the subjects whose practices are shaped by it.  In reference to early internet communities, Mark Poster writes, “many areas of the Internet extend preexisting identities and institutions” (266).  In the case of social book cataloging, the pre-existing identities are those of readers.  By joining a site or installing a Facebook application, a subject is first and foremost declaring him or herself a “reader.”  The user may then, as noted above, begin to narrow and customize that subject position into a particular type of reader.  This online identity extends the pre-existing networks of readers that operate concurrently through book clubs, libraries, book shops, and classrooms.  Historians of the book might argue that reading has always been a type of networked activity – from early acts of public readings of sacred texts, to reading aloud at the domestic fireside, etc.  Thus, rather than thinking of the utilities as forming a discrete discourse network, we may be better served by thinking of what these technologies add to the already-existing network.

A secondary result of book cataloging sites is that they collectively assemble information about readers and reading habits, supplementing information that was previously available only through the statistics of publishers, libraries, and book-sellers..  For instance, a cursory glance at the rankings of books on any given site tells us that the entire Harry Potter series of books by J.K. Rowling remain amongst the most commonly owned, most frequently reviewed, and most highly rated of the millions of books cataloged on each site.  In the Introduction to Database Aesthetics, Victoria Vesna writes, “data are the raw forms that are shaped and used to build architectures of knowledge exchange and serve also as an active commentary on the environment they depend on — the vast, intricate network with its many faces (xiii).  This additional user-created data results in a sort of folksonomical commentary on the reading network.  In these ways, the cataloging utility re-shapes the nature of information and discourses about books.

And finally, by allowing the reader to construct his or her own catalog in an asynchronous and networked environment, the cataloging utility offers a persistent summary of a user’s reading identity that may not have been visible when discussing books on a one-by-one basis.  This may be one of the most unique features of the social cataloging utility.  As Manuel Castells writes of network society, “in a period where there is widespread destructuring of organizations  and delegitimation of institutions, fading away of major social movements and ephemeral cultural expressions, identity becomes the major, sometimes only, source of meaning” (3).  Thus the social book cataloging utility makes its most meaningful extension to the discourse network in the self-conscious and visible construction of reading identities.

Over the course of this paper we interrogated the newfound relationship between the user and the catalog as well as considered several results of this new relationship. Where we began with the narrative implications of the database, we then noted the multiplication of “the” catalog into many catalogs and the way in which the catalog becomes divorced from physical collections. Moreover, we argued that the catalog changes from a finding list to a marker of reader experiences, which enables the user to carefully construct a database of the reading self. Considering the database of the reading self extended the long-standing discourse network of readers by facilitating the conscious construction of reading selves as part of a user’s online identity, which in turn creates a larger database of the discourse network, from which meta-narratives about reading habits may be extracted. By approaching the panel topic – “What the Digital Does to Reading” – in this way, we hope to have shown that not only does “the digital” enable each of these activities, but also that the digital has facilitated these changes in significant ways. Namely, the digital has turned reading into a consciously social activity where users, in creating a database of the reading self, humanize data. Thank you.

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