Scholars overhaul concept of e-book

January 26, 2001

Academics at Birmingham and Nottingham universities have created a new kind of electronic book that they believe could revolutionise scholarly writing and publishing.

The multidimensional, coherent and flexible nature of City Sites is the result of ground breaking work in developing a net-based publication as the centrepiece of a six-year project funded by the Arts and Humanities Research Board.

The book, which was produced by Birmingham University Press, can be read and used in a conventional way. Text, illustrations and cited works are introduced sequentially, examining the subject of urbanism in New York and Chicago from the 1870s to the 1930s. The book allows readers to follow electronic pathways and links that lead them to an array of multimedia resources, supporting discussion and analysis. These include static and animated photographs, films, maps, prints and paintings, other published works, links to websites and a live annotated bibliography, featuring online and printed material.

The book's hyperlinks to external sites show some of the research trails taken by its ten European and American authors. When readers go to an external site, a mechanism keeps them within the framework of the book so they can return easily.

Alec McAulay, editor at BUP, which produced the book, said: "There are other e-books and websites, but this is better because it is not a hub, or a portal, or a big brown bag full of stuff, or any other metaphor from shopping, public transport or town planning. It is an original academic book. In City Sites you cannot lose track of where you set off from."

Maria Balshaw, co-editor of the book and research fellow at Birmingham University's department of American and Canadian studies, said an important aspect of the project was that it helped to develop "unique styles" of academic writing.

"One of the essays uses a map of Chicago and, rather than being a long analysis in conventional essay form, it is done with a voiceover and images so it is easier to engage with. Also, rather than having long, scrolling documents, we have encouraged contributors to write a series of texts, starting at a primary level with a couple of thousand words, but with detours that go to another level of detail," she said.

The book is believed to be one of only a few electronic publications being submitted for the forthcoming research assessment exercise. Its creators argue that it "presents an entirely new conception of what an electronic book might look like", and added "we hope that the format of the book will provoke discussion about the newly developing protocols for delivering academic research in a multimedia environment".

Mr McAulay said: "We are all trying to find a way to use the internet. City Sites is a big hint as to one way it might be done in two or three years' time."

The book can be accessed at

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