A Document is a Place

This statement by Bob Stein of The Institute on the Future of the Book in a recent Imprint story caught my eye:

“I view the book as a place where readers congregate
and the social aspect of reading is where we’re going.”

Books are places? What? Took me a second to get what he meant. I’ve often felt that I’m connected to other readers of the book I’m reading. To read longform prose is to commune with others who’ve read and enjoyed the same work. Whether it’s Petronius or Isherwood, to read is to feel joined in a community of like-minded humans who share my interest — even if we’re separated by 1000 miles or 1000 years. A book is a gathering place: asynchronous but compelling. It locates us, in a way, with a humanity of peers.

This got me thinking about ways this could apply to our client work. Our nonprofit clients create a lot of documents. And we, in turn, try to help these documents find their community (ie, get read).

One recent project, Daring to Lead 2011, a major study of nonprofit leadership, we designed not just the printed + PDF version of the report but also a website with excerpts and additional graphs from the study. The website invites folks to comment on the Daring study findings and engage with each other. The study authors wanted to engage the wider community of readers in a discussion about the findings. We’ve had some mild success with the site, but perhaps we could have done better?

Bob Stein’s comment made me consider whether we’d got it backwards. If we viewed the Daring report as a “place” rather than a document, then perhaps it’s a mistake to make a PDF first, and then add it to a website. By distributing it in print and PDF, we moved the reading of the report offline. People had to come back to the site to add their comments. This isn’t a very natural progression; read offline, stay offline.

But it’s in the commentary where the life (and future) of reading lies. We see the markers of this everywhere, from margin notes on e-readers to reader-written book reviews on Facebook/Living Social to the fan-driven JK Rowling mega-site, Pottermore.

Daring to Lead was an intermediary step, in a sense. But in the future, we’ll be steering our clients to build documents as participatory (web-based) places first, instead of offline files like PDFs and printed paper.