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portal: Libraries and the Academy 4.1 (2004) 149-151

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The Columbia Guide to Digital Publishing, ed. William E. Kasdorf. New York: Columbia University Press, 2003. 750 p. $34.95 (ISBN 0-231-12498-8)

The Columbia Guide to Digital Publishing, edited by William Kasdorf, a well-respected pioneer in (and sometime evangelist of) the use of XML technologies for publishing and president of Impressions Book and Journal Services, is a significant tome. It weighs in at 750 pages and more pounds than one is likely to want in one's briefcase; there is also a more portable (perhaps) online version. The Guide declares its intention to be comprehensive and authoritative on the subject of digital publishing. Its size is in part due to its extensive coverage of all the aspects of digital publishing one might expect--such as mark-up, composition, and digital printing--and of a few that one might not--such as accessibility and aspects of the international nature of online publishing. The Guide is, for the most part, remarkably successful in fulfilling its intentions; although some chapters seem narrowly directed at traditional publishers, making them at best less relevant and at worst annoying to other readers.

It is a testament to the value of the Guide that as a publisher (primarily of electronic content), I literally read with two pencils--a red one to mark passages significant to this review and a blue one to mark passages that contained information useful to me and my staff. Of the latter there were many, particularly in the production-oriented chapters, such as Kasdorf's chapter on mark-up technologies; John Strange's chapter on "Organizing, Editing, and Linking Content;" and Thad McIllroy's detailed discussion of "Composition, Design and Graphics."

The book's chapters fall into three broad categories. Some are particularly oriented toward the details of production and discuss specific technologies and methods in detail (see, for example, sections like "Managing Fonts" in the chapter on composition). Others are more theoretical and, while they may provide some timely detail, focus primarily on outlining sound principles of electronic publishing (Kasdorf's XML discussion, for example, is always grounded in the principle of building around structural mark-up). The chapters in the third category are more issue-oriented, while still pragmatic, focusing on rights, permissions, and accessibility. Kasdorf declares in his preface that this is "not a handbook or a manual; the information it provides is not of the 'how-to-do-it' sort." (p. liii) Many of the chapters do have checklists and recommendations, and many readers, at least for the next couple of years, will find these valuable. [End Page 149]

Whether they will continue to find the book valuable is, of course, the big question for anything as topical as the Guide. As the owner of too many out-dated computer manuals, I came to the Guide with a skeptical eye, expecting to discover useful information, but also to find the volume already plagued by issues of currency and durability. It was a pleasant surprise to discover that although the book does contain many references to specific hardware devices and software programs, as well as methods and standards that are both evolving and dying, it contextualizes these references in discussions that will remain relevant for years to come. For example, Mark Gross's chapter on "Data Capture and Conversion," while surveying current methodologies, also places significant emphases on planning, design, and project management--steps in the conversion process that are essential and quite outside the choice of method. Similarly, Bill Trippe's "Content Management and Web Publishing" talks specifically about kinds and costs of content management systems, but he also insists on the importance of defining workflow and roles in relation to content management. This stress on underlying principles perhaps should not be surprising, given that the impressive assembly of seasoned professionals who contributed to the book is certainly well aware of the pace of change in all aspects of information technology.

The changing nature of publishing has been not quite as uniformly rapid but...


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pp. 149-151
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