The eBook Revolution: Blowing Books to Bits
Perspectives on Data, Information and Knowledge

In the Spirit of Benjamin Franklin

Craftsman Ben Franklin

I recently found myself spending some time in the historic district of Philadelphia and consequently surrounded by echoes of the irrepressible Benjamin Franklin. Every once and a while, when surveying history, you come across people who just seem to lay their hands on everything and somehow manage to leave a lasting impression on everything they touch. Ben Franklin is one of those characters. And among the American founding fathers, it is Franklin that strikes me as the most approachable - radiating a thoroughly engaging combination of affable sociability, tireless industry and unquenchable curiosity. He was a successful printer, popular author, respected scientist, ingenious inventor, worldly statesman – and these have since coalesced to make him a paragon of particular approach to life (one that holds a lot of merit I might add, and to which we would do well to revisit from time to time). Among the many things that are attractive about Ben Franklin perhaps the strongest is the sense that he was very much a people person – with communication being his capstone skill.

Benjamin Franklin Portrait

Now my visit to Philadelphia was occasioned by participating in the J. Boye Philadelphia 2010 conference, an event that assembles web professionals from far and wide to discuss the latest trends in web content development, management and delivery. It was an interesting gathering and one that exhibited a number of very positive features. As I have observed in the past (See The Death of the Tradeshow), I have often found the typical technology tradeshow to be unsatisfying – and on many levels. The J. Boye event managed to sidestep many of the points I have been quick to criticize in other venues. Firstly, there is an emphasis, even an overwhelming emphasis, placed on bringing together a community of practitioners and facilitating the networking amongst them. The primary activity of the J. Boye enterprise, as far as I understand it, revolves around creating and facilitating a community of practice for web professionals, and especially those charged with managing and guiding the investments organizations are making (or should be making) in order to capitalize upon what the web can now provide. The format of the event seemed to reflect this orientation with there being a large number of sessions whereby many of the attendees shared their experiences. A significant percentage of the talks took the form of case studies or reflections upon recent experiences (as did mine). Layered on top of this format were a number of social events – which started with a “jet-lag reception” on the evening before the event began, included a trip to a bowling hall, and concluded with a post-event dinner. As its primary virtue, the event featured many good conversations.

In parallel with this event, by a strange coincidence, I also participated in an online webinar convened around the topic of the e-Publishing Business. This online event assembled presenters who are actively engaged in the accelerating eBook revolution and connected them to several hundred practitioners from across the publishing industry. Although the format of a one-hour webinar does introduce several practical constraints, the short presentations and the ensuing discussion sparked by good questions did manage to cover a lot of ground. The echoes of the event on Twitter showcase how successfully this short gathering was in striking a chord with publishers. So this online session shared with the J. Boye conference a key feature – good conversations convened between professionals who might not otherwise have crossed paths.

When Benjamin Franklin was only 22 he drafted what he hoped would someday be his epitaph. Almost as we would expect, it mixes some gritty realism with a healthy measure of humour, all sustained by the solid underpinning of his faith.

“The Body of B. Franklin Printer; Like the Cover of an old Book, Its Contents torn out, And stript of its Lettering and Gilding, Lies here, Food for Worms. But the Work shall not be wholly lost: For it will, as he believ'd, appear once more, In a new & more perfect Edition, Corrected and Amended By the Author.”

Perhaps caught up by the intellect behind the words, I can’t help but to apply this epitaph to our past approaches to book publishing – with this application pointing towards the arrival of a new, and more perfect, realization of the venerable book. But Benjamin Franklin would not, I suspect, take that step. His actual gravesite, which I had a chance to pass on several occasions, bears a much simpler declaration – one that he penned in his final will with the advantage of much experience behind him, and one that puts forward what mattered most.

Franklin Grave


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