Links

chain

I was browsing in a bookshop today, and ended up looking at Played in London: Charting the Heritage of a City at Play by Simon Inglis. It’s a handsome and enticing publication about London’s sporting venues, clearly the product of superb research, which is top of my must-buy list, just as soon as I have worked my way through a few of those books which were once must-buys only to become have-boughts and are now must-reads.

What particularly caught my eye about the book was when I turned to the back of the book and found a section called ‘Links’. This wasn’t a list of web links but instead a list of print publications, as they related to individual chapters in the book. So it was what would usually be called Bibliography, or Sources, or Further Reading. Nowadays bibliographies will often cite web links, either as a standalone section for main web sources used, or links to articles for online which are interwoven with print sources. But Inglis’s book overturns the bibliography’s concession to the modern by calling all its sources Links.

I think this is a beautiful innovation (what other books have done the same thing? I’ve no idea). It says that this is not a book based on other books, or a summation of of knowledge scattered across other locations, but that it is one among equals. There is a world of works on London’s sport history of which the reader has but one part in their hands. Each helped contribute to this work, yet by following up each you will be enriched further. It encourages, even demands, that you look further, and all will be the better for it.

The hyperlink is one of the building blocks of the World World Web, of course, and one of its chief joys. Beyond its usefulness (usually) as an indication of either where more information may be found or what the source was of the information that you have just read, it marries together text and index. It makes intelligence apparent. Those who concern themselves with the building of the Web sometimes fret over how hyperlinks are not as meaningful as they might be, because they do not directly tell you what a link means. If I turn this set of words into a hyperlink, there is nothing about those words per se that tells you what the link signifies. So it is that they dream of the Semantic Web and open linked data, where everything is meaningful and conjoined.

This is a beautiful idea in itself, and I’m a great advocate of automated metadata, particularly when it comes to digital audio and video sources. There is so much intelligence that can be machine-extracted from texts – print, web and audiovisual – when we have them in digital form and when we then link them through common ontologies and thesauri to create the all-purpose, all-inclusive index.

But I’m a cataloguer at heart (and previously by profession) and there is much to be said for a human selecting sources and directing the user to the most relevant and useful of these. This is what bibliographies do. They lay out a meaningful history of how knowledge has been compiled, based on human endeavour. But to call them Links takes us beyond a sometimes rather fusty academic tradition (“just look at all the books I read to produce this one”) to something that does what the Web does so well. Everything is a link in a chain – this book, this web site, this next thing that you will read, and the next. No text is an island, entire of itself; every text is a piece of the continent, a part of the main.

I shall look out for other books with a Links section at the end, and adopt the practice myself from henceforth.

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