Michael Patkin's

Books As Machines

Publication history, Reflections & comments



Surgery & ergonomics


Information design

Editorials, book reviews



Seen suddenly with the eyes of innocence, a book is a remarkable, machine for the storage and retrieval of information. Compared with a tape recording, it has the advantages of sheer quantity of information, simplicity especially for access, and organization of material; it is not possible to skim through a tape, which commits the user to complete involvement. In McLuhan's (1964) terminology, the latter corresponds to a "hot" rather than a "cool" medium.

Analysed in innocence a little further, a book consists of a stack of rectangular membranes attached to a binding, with protective and identifying covers. The elegance of ancient scrolls must have been matched by a lack of convenience comparable to that felt till the time when the cork stopper was invented.

The contents of a Bind Of Organized Knowledge (known now simply as a B.O.O.K.) follow a more or less logical order. The skill and energy with which the over all plan and index have been provided determine how quickly and reliably useful knowledge, or Its absence, can be arrived at. Few technical books are read through as a continuous narrative by those who would hope to put the contained Information to use in their daily work.


Doctors have many reasons for interest in books, not the least being some hundreds of dollars or more invested. In them which Is inexorably depreciating, apart from the cost of shelves and living space. More important, one hopes, Is the role of books as messengers through time and space from one mind to another, as handy as a bookshelf.

With books established In daily life for hundreds of years, Is it impertinent to look critically at their format? Is it just possible that an objective look at books as machines will reveal hilarious discordances, similar to the lathe designed for a man four and half feet high, two feet wide across the shoulders, with an arm span of eight feet, and eyeballs on stalks eight inches long or a very bad permanent stoop?

With several hundred books on one's shelves, or in a strange library, one still wants to locate a given book easily. Yet the title is often decorative rather than legible, or quick to smudge with handling. To have to switch rapidly from horizontal to vertical lettering and back again reflects a false reliance on style and visual appeal rather than on functional design. For both public and larger private libraries, there seems every good reason for the publisher to put the accepted Dewey decimal library catalogue number on or just after the title page, from where it can be copied easily on to the spine of the book, if it is not already there.


One might hope, too, that each book, or its advertising brochure, would include two three by five inch catalogue cards. Each library that buys a book has these items prepared laboriously, and sometimes incorrectly, by hand, at a cost that multiplies with the rate at which new books are acquired. To have catalogue cards ready for filing under author and title would speed the technical side of handling books, and encourage private buyers In the management of their own more modest libraries. Up to a certain point, books are like good friends, recognized at a slight glance. As the years pass, the circle of acquaintances widens so far that ancient relationships fade, and cannot be recalled reliably or quickly.

The size of some books Is too big for comfortable and efficient use, if one omits reference books from this analysis. It Is unfortunate that a handy page size, as with newspapers, is mirrored in a corresponding loss of quality There seems to be a puritan tradition that anything beneficial must be bitter to taste, or awkward to use, like medicine or much machinery. While too small a page size impairs the reader's rapport with his book, too large a page size is awkward on the shelves, in an arm chair, on a desk or in a brief case. Excess of cost rather than size is obviously an important matter and has been the subject of recent discussion, but cannot be discussed profitably here.

Two current lines of activity will influence the layout of books in the future, especially where purely technical matter is being presented. One is linear programming for computer use, a technique of bifurcating pure lines of argument which appeals tidily to the Intellect. The other is programmed learning, in which the basis of the "well-formed frame" Is a discrete and readily understood step in the argument presented, leading Iogically to the next step in the learning process.


What of the format of scientific journals, and how can this be related to ideals or presentation? Many of these are bound into half yearly volumes in libraries, with an index. Sometimes librarians are presented with a photostat by a puzzled reader, unable to trace the source. of the copied material, because the pages do not indicate the date or the source of the publication. This suggests that binding and publishing should take into account the growing practice of using photocopies, and include adequate labelling and margins next to the bound edge. Compatibility applies to a sequence of technical processes almost as much as to matrimony.

The most recent and interesting copies of a journal, however, lie in an assorted heap of up to 52 copies, difficult to pick amongst and inconvenient for browsing or locating a particular item. Nature has the. date and page numbers of each issue printed on the outer cover close to the spine, so that a given issue or set of pages can be picked out more readily from a stack of journals. Clear print face, of large size and the most striking colour contrast, all make this kind of measure more effective still.

The list of contents of a journal is often hidden away discreetly, with a modesty becoming the brass plate of a professional man. The contents may be closely packed, so that there is little break between the end of one title and the beginning of the next. In scanning the contents of a Journal, the first couple of words of the title (once they are sighted) often indicate to the reader whether the article lies in his field of interest or not. The question of number and placement of advertisements, like that of book prices, will doubtless remain a fertile area for argument.


What of the articles themselves? A summary is now the rule, and the American Journal of Physiology adds a list of the several topics or areas under which the article should be indexed. Whether the journal is a "recorder" or a "newspaper", to use the descriptions of Sir Theodore Fox (1965), its main function for many subscribers will be as a source of articles torn out and filed for current work or future reference. The simple matter of handling a three or four page article so that it is easily located becomes a growing frustration when the number of references grows to hundreds or thousands. A theoretically satisfying indexing system was described last year by De Alarcon (1969), but many doctors would not have the patience needed for the several minutes required for listing each new item; one wants a method of filing that is completed in seconds rather than minutes.

This problem must have been solved in many different individual ways, whether by large manila envelopes, filing cabinets, or frequent resort to a librarian. One simple system makes use of six by four inch cards. Notes at meetings and conferences, extracts from library books and from journals, can all be placed on these handy sized cards, indexed along the lines of chapter headings of one's favourite, textbook in the subject studied. Cut out articles and photostats can also be kept in this file, provided that the two margins are trimmed and they are folded into envelopes also measuring six by four inches. These envelopes then have the title and author typed or written along the top edge.

With the exploding explosion of information beyond adequate adjectives, this Is a problem that must plague more and more scientific workers and interested laymen. Perhaps help will come from the giant business firms dealing in office. machinery and systems. Suffice it for the moment to say that cards measuring six by four inches provide a useful amount of writing space, they are easy to store in an inside coat pocket for meetings, they are already in wide use, and they are easily bought at retail shops. (Three by five inch cards give too little writing room, and five by eight inch cards are both too large for the pocket and too liable to crease with handling.)


For the dissecting reader of journals [readers may prefer me to say "discerning", but this was for someone who like to cut up their journals though— the intention may be too obscure], it is a boon when each article starts at the top of a fresh page, Identified by date and title along the edge. This ideal must at times conflict with the economic realities of the business of publishing, but is obviously a growing consideration. The personal handwritten summary card is extravagant in terms of time, and it is simple to tape a cut-out abstract to one of the six by four inch cards mentioned earlier. Perhaps the time is not far off when each article reprint is accompanied by a summary card of this type, or by a booklet which can be placed In the same file. Perhaps microfilms, or shorter articles of crisper impact, will be the rule, which seems a good point at which to stop. One question—how do others cope with their references?


De Alarcon, R. (1969), "A Personal Medical Reference   Index", Lancet, 1: 301.
Fox, T. (1965), "Crisis In Communication. The Functions   and Futures of Medical Journals", Heath Clark   Lectures of the University of London, 1963,   Athlone   Press.
McLuhan, M. (1964), "Understanding Media. The   Extensions of Man", Routledge & Kegan Paul,   London.





Reprinted from The Medical Journal of Australia, 1971, 1: 44 (January 2) ______________

This paper reflects the technology of 1971. However most of the innovations suggested at the time can still apply today, for example having the Dewey number printed on the spine. Those who want a different number could just use the usual label.

I wrote this paper at the Department of Surgery, Royal Newcastle Hospital, Newcastle, NSW 2300, I was their first and last Fellow in Surgery, doubtless because I didn't conform to local rules and personalities. Nevertheless it took me to a full-time career in surgery from a town of 2000 people based around dairying and a timber mill

Australasian Medical Publishing Company Limited, 71 79 Arundel Street, Glebe, Sydney, N.S.W 2037