Tuesday, November 6, 2007

How Big is a Book?

The question came up yesterday: "How big does a book need to be?". Or, if I may rephrase, "What is the minimum size necessary for a Wikibooks module to be a book?". Surprisingly, there were some disagreements among wikibookians about the answer. It's not necessarily a bad thing, however, that we haven't codified every last detail. One thing that Wikibookians really pride themselves on is that they do keep the rules to a minimum, and they keep editorial freedom to a maximum.

Some people say that a book should be considerably longer then a corresponding Wikipedia article. I'm of the school that it's not a quantitative difference we should be shooting for, but instead a qualitative one. In my mind, what most separates out a book from an encyclopedia article is that a book should be instructional. Books likely should be more comprehensive then an encyclopedia article, but that's just a guideline.

People view book writing as a daunting task, but I don't feel like that is the case. Books can be long or short, in-depth or just scratching the surface. You can pick a subject niche, and expect other books to fill in the background information and other books to carry the baton into the more advanced subjects. On top of that, we don't have the same style and formatting guidelines that Wikipedia has, so authors are more free to get creative, or even go completely minimalist.

In short, writing a book should not be any more daunting then writing an encyclopedia article.


  1. The size of books is just one of several interlocking issues. Books are not just large, they are generally organized as a roughly linear narrative. It is not clear that the Wikipedia model for book writing can deal with textbooks.

    Yes, I start by thinking about Wikipedia as a book. The Wikipedia model for collaborative book writing relies heavily on the idea that if many editors work together on an article then there is a good chance that it will be good enough to be useful to some people. There has never been a "master plan" for Wikipedia as a book....Wikipedia "just happens" when participants edit articles they are interested in. An encyclopedia is well-suited to the distributed, bottom-up process of book writing because it exists as a network of ideas that readers can explore in many different orders. Wikipedia sells itself as a starting point for readers who are interested in a topic.

    Other kinds of books (such as textbooks) do seem more daunting to me when I'm thinking as a wiki editor. Most textbooks are for a narrow audience. When we start writing for a narrow audience we quickly depart from the conditions that make the well-traveled parts of Wikipedia a success. With a textbook targeted to a narrow audience it becomes harder to get enough collaborators to power the "checks and balances" system that works for popular Wikipedia articles. Also, many people view textbooks as a tool to be used for an extended period of time and a as a way to learn an extensive and coherent understanding of a subject area. When people are thinking about making that kind of investment of time, they do not want to be told, "this textbook can be wrong, use at your own risk". Really, people want a textbook that has some kind of expertise behind it, some sort of guarantee that they will not be wasting their time if they read it it. Most textbooks are not used by an isolated individual....mostly they are used by learners within a social learning group...a kind of support group.

    Do we have a wiki model that adequately supports editors with the expertise needed to write textbooks? Wikipedia has such bad relations with experts that alternative wikis are being created in order to provide a welcoming wiki environment for experts. These expert-friendly wikis also abandon the idea that wiki content can be left open to be vandalized by the whole world. Not only are textbooks used within a social learning environment, they are generally created within a social learning environment. Experts who are concerned with helping others learn about a subject area not only know the subject, but they know a particular group of learners and how to present that subject to those learners. Useful textbooks seldom exist outside of a healthy learning community.

    So we have to talk about the needed conditions for book construction using wiki technology. Textbooks need a different environment than does an encyclopedia. I've argued in the past that "wikiversity" can be a social learning environment that might support textbook writing. I was rather astonished when Jimbo decided to kick Wikiversity out of Wikibooks. I'm left hoping that Wikibooks and Wikiversity can work together closely to create the kind of online wiki community that is needed to make online textbooks.

  2. "One thing that Wikibookians really pride themselves on is that they do keep the rules to a minimum, and they keep editorial freedom to a maximum"

    You're joking, right?

  3. No, i'm not joking. I don't know why you would expect that I was. Compared to make other wikimedia projects, Wikibooks really does have a minimum amount of rules concerning what authors can and cannot do. The only real rules that we have are that the content should be "booklike", and that it should loosely follow some basic rules like NPOV, NOR, and the copyright policy. Even then, our interpretations of what precisely qualifies as NPOV or NOR is significantly relaxed compared to some projects like wikipedia.