What is a Book?

In discussing a problem we were trying to solve the other day, we got into a discussion about how you define a book. This is the kind of question that likely only a cataloger can love, so if you’re not one you may want to surf off to some other spot.

It turns out that it is much more difficult than you might think at first blush. Dictionary definitions are singularly useless in this context, as they are vague enough to include all manner of printed and bound material that is unlikely to interest a library user who probably thinks they can recognize a book when they see one. This calls to mind the oft-told tale of the judge who failed to come up with a definition for “porn” beyond “I’ll know it when I see it.”

But meanwhile it leaves us floundering in our attempts to authoritatively identify books in WorldCat. It seems that the best we can come up with (so far) is to take everything away that clearly isn’t a book (e.g., records coded as manuscripts, images, serials, etc.), and anything left we can consider a book. Sloppy, perhaps, but it’s the best we have right now.

Roy Tennant works on projects related to improving the technological infrastructure of libraries, museums, and archives.