This Is Not a Book: Thomas Jefferson & Apple’s App Store

Notes on the State of Virginia app[This is a guest post by John O'Brien and Brad Pasanek. John O'Brien is associate professor of English at the University of Virginia, where he teaches eighteenth-century literature. He is the author of Harlequin Britain: English Pantomime and Entertainment, 1690-1760, and is working on a book entitled Literature Incorporated: The Cultural Unconscious of the Business Corporation, 1650-1850. Brad Pasanek is assistant professor of English at UVA. He's busy revising his first book, a dictionary of eighteenth-century metaphors of mind that digests thousands of examples organized at]

Are you a reader? A student of America’s founding? Interested in book history? We have an app for that. And we would love to show it to you. But a funny thing happened on the way to the App Store: Apple has rejected it, multiple times. Our attempt to produce an app designed to let readers interact with facsimiles of rare documents — in this case, the first printed editions of Thomas Jefferson’s Notes on the State of Virginia, his only full-length book — is a story of great frustration for us, but, we hope, can be a cautionary tale for others who are thinking about the possibilities of developing educational and scholarly material for the iOS and the iPad.

Notes on the State of Virginia was originally written as a response to a questionnaire given to representatives of all of the American colonies by the Comte de Marbois, the French legate to the Continental Congress, in 1780. Most of the other responses to the questionnaire, which asked straightforward questions about each colonies’ chief products, geographical features, legal structures, and so on, seem to have been short and to the point, almost perfunctory. But Jefferson being Jefferson–a polymath with an obsessive streak and a deep love of his native state–Virginia’s response was amazing: a booklength compilation of facts and figures that provides an extraordinary record of early America’s natural, philosophical and political history. Like many works, the Notes went through several stages: there is a manuscript, now at the Massachusetts Historical Society, that became the basis of the first edition. This was printed in a limited edition in Paris in 1785 while Jefferson was serving as the United States’s ambassador to France. The book was more formally “published” in 1787 in London by the bookseller John Stockdale, and it is this edition that is the basis of all modern versions of Jefferson’s book.

The idea behind our app was a simple one: we wanted to enable users–who we imagined as scholars, students, and general readers–to compare images of unique copies of those two early print editions of Jefferson’s Notes: a copy of the 1785 Paris edition that Jefferson presented to the Marquis de Lafayette, and Jefferson’s own copy of the 1787 Stockdale edition. These copies are among the treasures of the Special Collections Library at the University of Virginia, which was founded by Jefferson, and where we both teach in the Department of English. Jefferson’s copy of his own book is particularly interesting, because it includes hundreds of changes in his own handwriting that he made to the book over the course of the next few decades, some of which were quite substantial. While most of these emendations were incorporated in editions of the book published after Jefferson’s death, the physical object itself is locked away, a restricted library holding.

We imagined the tablet environment as a uniquely powerful surrogate for readers interested in Jefferson‘s second-, third-, and nth thoughts, who could study marginalia and at the same time access–with the swipe of a finger–a modern annotated reading text that would put the work in its context. We got a small amount of funding, the (enthusiastic) permission of the University Library to use high-resolution images of their treasures, the assistance of a splendidly capable graduate student in our department, and a local developer, Performant Software Solutions, who understands the humanities and immediately grasped what we hoped to accomplish. We edited and annotated the text, and transcribed all of Jefferson’s annotations; meanwhile Performant came up with a clever interface that allowed the user to scroll rapidly though collated page images and to swipe between the various states of the text. We knew from the outset that this would fall well short of a scholarly edition, but imagined that our app could be a good test case for using the tablet environment to put original documents in the hands of students and general readers. We planned to issue Notes for free.

But when we submitted the app to Apple for approval, it was turned down. Why? The reason the App Review Team gave (again and again) was that our app was “simply” or “just a book” (their words), and that it therefore had to be formatted in Apple’s iBooks Author program in order to be distributed through the iBookstore. We decided to play along and make a good-faith effort to convert our app into an iBook, only it doesn’t work. We cannot reproduce all of the features of our app–including some of the ones that we think the app needs to be useful to anyone–and for reasons no one has been able to explain, the iBooks Author file seems to expand well beyond the maximum size for an iBook (currently 2 GB). We’re stuck with an app that does just about everything we envisioned, that has impressed the many people to whom we have shown it on our own iPads, that does something that no app or printed book out there does–but that Apple won’t allow to be listed in its App Store. So, yes, it is possible to download an app called “Burp and Fart Piano” that does pretty much what you’d expect such an app to do, but a free, edited edition of Jefferson’s Notes on the State of Virginia that lets you compare Jefferson’s and Lafayette’s own copies and to zoom in on Jefferson’s handwritten corrections? No dice.

Which is of course Apple’s prerogative. Apple has control over both its App Store and its iBookstore, and gets to decide what goes into each and why. Our hunch is that Apple has decided to define “book” narrowly in order to populate the iBookstore with as much unique content as possible as a way of competing against Amazon and Google. But this remains just a hunch because Apple does not say what its criteria are for deciding that a piece of software with a significant textual component is primarily a “book,” and how that would differ from a piece of software with a significant textual component that it would define as an “app.” And it also presumably has the right to change its mind at any time, as its perceived business interests change. Unlike scholarly peer review, Apple’s review process is a closed and binary one: you’re either in or you’re out, and feedback is minimal. It was probably a failure of imagination on our parts not to have considered this possibility, but we were inspired by apps such as TouchPress’s wonderful edition of T. S. Eliot’s The Waste Land, which Apple–for reasons only it knows–classes as an app. There’s no small amount of irony in the fact that none of these digital entities is a “book” in anything other than a metaphorical sense, but on the frontier of tablet computing, a book is what Apple says it is.

We’re still convinced that tablets let readers interact with texts and other documents in ways that laptops and desktop cannot match. And sales of tablet computers are now overtaking sales of desktops and laptops; they are going to be a growing part of the digital ecosystem over the next decade at least. But that world is currently dominated by Apple, which decides what content can be distributed through the iOS. (It is true that many things can be done through the Safari browser, but software architecture of the iOS makes “the app” by far the most flexible and fastest means for organizing and retrieving data.) And as long as the process for getting material into the iOS remains opaque and inscrutable, we cannot encourage others to think about expending time and effort on developing for it, however enticing the prospect of putting scholarly work in the hands of an iPad owner might be. We’re game for suggestions for ways to get this app over the hump with Apple.

In the meantime, we’re looking for a programmer who can help us port our app to Android.

Photo is a screenshot of John and Brad’s iPad app of Notes on the State of Virginia. Courtesy of Brad Pasanek.

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