U.S. Intellectual History Blog

Historians, Academic Publishers, and the Ongoing Digital Publishing (R)evolution

But does it have a Reading Room?

During the last two weeks, two major national events exploring the frontiers of e-publishing took place on opposite coasts of the U.S.  On October 21, the Digital Public Library of America (DPLA) held its first Plenary Meeting at the National Archives in Washington, D.C. And on October 26-28, the Books in Browsers conference took place at the headquarters of the Internet Archive in San Francisco.

The DPLA event was built around the six winners of the DPLA’s beta sprint competition to identify “ideas, models, prototypes, technical tools, user interfaces, etc. . . that demonstrate how the DPLA might index and provide access to a wide range of broadly distributed content.”* The DPLA also announced a $5 million grant from the Sloan Foundation and the Arcadia Fund to promote “an intense two-year grassroots process to build a realistic and detailed workplan for a national digital library, the development of a functional technical prototype, and targeted content digitization efforts.” Jill Cousins, of Europeana, the European Union’s digital library project, announced a partnership with DPLA focused on coordination between European and US libraries, museums and archives. The agenda of the plenary meeting can be found here. A video of the entire event, as well as a variety of reports about it and documents from it, are available here.  The speakers at the event were, not surprisingly given the origins and scope of the DPLA process, largely from the worlds of libraries, archives (analog and digital), and academia.

The Books in Browsers conference, in contrast, was much less academic and much more geared toward the digital publishing industry.  A complete agenda can be found here. The common participant in both events was the Internet Archive itself, represented at both events by its founder, Brewster Kahle. Notably absent, at least from the agenda, were academic publishers.

What is–and what should be–the relationship of historians to these events…and to the greater digital publishing revolution in the midst of which we find ourselves?

A number of those presenting at the DPLA plenary meeting are historians–or at least history-affiliated scholars: Peter Baldwin, Professor of History at UCLA; Bob Darnton, Carl H. Pforzheimer University Professor and Director of the Harvard University Library; and Amanda French, THATCamp (The Humanities and Technology Camp) Coordinator at the Center for History and New Media.

But most historians and other academic humanists have not been much involved in these conversations about the future of digital publishing.  And academic presses–the institutions on which we largely depend for the dissemination of our work–seem to be even further removed from these developments.**

In my experience, historians and other academics in humanities disciplines tend to be rather conservative when it comes to considering structural changes in the conditions of our research or our employment. There are good reasons for this. For at least the last quarter century, most of the pressure for change has come from economic and political forces which are at best indifferent to our interests and often quite hostile to them.  But the changes that might be brought about by digital publishing might potentially be to our enormous benefit.  

Historians are, of course, very dependent on publishing.  It is a central means for circulating our work.  It is also among the most important ways that we credential ourselves professionally. And for many of us, especially in intellectual history, it also provides us with much of our data. More than scholars in any other field, historians focus on the production of books. And it is books–especially academic books–that have been put most at risk by the changing economics of the publishing industry.

Finding a publisher for an academic book has become more and more difficult…though we in U.S. history haven’t seen the worst effects of the cutbacks in university press lists (talk to someone in, e.g., German or Russian Studies!).  And as the conditions of employment in the academy worsen, the imperative to publish or perish if anything grows.

The digital publishing revolution does present some dangers. To the extent that the traditional book is threatened with extinction, we ought to be defending it.  There are still things that it offers that other reading technologies don’t.

But the upsides of the digital publishing revolution are potentially greater.  We are living in a moment in which the forms of academic communication–which have in the past usually changed fairly slowly and organically–seem open to experimentation and rapid innovation.  Digital technologies offer new means of disseminating work (traditionally conceived) that solve some of the economic problems associated with traditional publishing.  And they also offer the possibilities of entirely new kinds of academic work (including, of course, blogs).

The perceived crisis in traditional academic publishing–as well as the creativity that has begun to emerge in these new forms–has also led more and more departmental and university review committees to treat non-traditional forms–and non-traditionally disseminated forms–of academic work seriously.  Our central technology of quality control–peer review–cuts across the digital divide; it can be used to bolster any of these new forms.

But it is essential that historians and other humanities scholars involve ourselves more actively in the process of creating this new world of digital publishing.  There are, of course, far bigger players in this game, most of whom are at best unaware of our professional needs.  If, when the dust settles, we are stuck with digital forms that do not suit us–or face a market dominated by a few huge corporate players who have no interest in our distributional needs–we may find that these changes don’t serve our purposes at all.

As the first Publications Chair of the Society for U.S. Intellectual History, I find myself having to think about these issues very concretely. In the past, a new professional organization like ours would have been faced with one big question: do we publish a journal?  Now, instead, we are faced with a more exciting, open-ended, and complicated one: what does our publication program look like? 

I would love to answer that question in ways that will put S-USIH on the cutting edge of academic publishing (taking into account our very small scale, of course).  As an organization that started as blog, we perhaps have the right pedigree to do this. But I need to further educate myself about what others are doing and what we might conceivably take on. Blogs, after all, are so 1999.

Along with a number of other S-USIH bloggers, I look forward to participating, this coming January, in THATCamp AHA.*** And Tim Lacy and I are still on the lookout for anyone interested in becoming the third member of S-USIH’s Publications Committee (prospective members need to join S-USIH, of course).  Those with a knowledge of, or interest in, the changing world of digital publishing are very much encouraged to offer their services to the PubComm (though I should add that we have not by any means ruled out trying to start a journal). 

But I hope that even those who are not tempted to sign up for the S-USIH PubComm will educate themselves about the changes–good and bad for historians–taking place in the world of digital publishing. I’m convinced that we can make those changes better for us than they’d otherwise be…and quite possibly create a publishing landscape that is a marked improvement over the one we have faced in recent years, both in the quality and availability of scholarship and in the opportunities it offers us for professional advancement. 

* This blog has discussed DPLA a number of times in the past.  The most recent video update (dated September 14) from DPLA chair John Palfrey can be viewed here.  The forty final submissions to the beta spring can be seen here.

** Among the several dozen Co-Chairs and Conveners of the six “workstreams” that will define the shape of the DPLA project going forward, only one comes from a university press:  Margeurite Avery, Senior Acquisitions Editor in Science, Technology, & Society (STS), Communications, Library and Information Science, Internet Studies, and Information Policy at MIT Press.

*** Those unfamiliar with the THATCamp concept are encouraged to listen to this episode of the Making History podcast, featuring THATCamp coordinator Amanda French.

One Thought on this Post

  1. One of the primary benefits to digital publishing for someone like me who writes about art is the ability to link to many many images, as opposed to a printed book, in which costs often severely limit the number of images.

    Having participated in the excellent Women and Social Movements out of SUNY Binghamton, I can say that publishing an essay that hyperlinks to sources and images was a fascinating intellectual exercise. It changed how and what I wrote in a variety of ways.

    As soon as I’m done with my current book project, I’m planning to collaborate with a geographer on a multimedia, digitally published work about site specific activist art installations. I’m excited, yet daunted a little as the technology is way outside my ability.

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