My presentation a few weeks ago at the Drexel University Libraries Scholarly Communications Symposium went extremely well, all things considered. My talk was titled, “The Digital Ad Fontes!: Scholarly Research Trends in the Humanities,” and I was representing the liberal arts, particularly history and theology.

Dr. Blaise Cronin, who was going to give the first lecture, took ill and was unable to attend. The attendees were quite interested in my presentation, and questions had to be cut off to maintain the schedule, even though I was given more time than I originally anticipated because of Dr. Cronin’s absence.

I want to pass on a bit of the introduction of my piece, in which I set up the question and engage various views of what scholarly publishing in the digital age looks like:

Nearly a decade ago, in an insightful and valuable work, MIT professor Janet H. Murray discussed her vision for the future of the newly burgeoning World Wide Web. She wrote of “a single comprehensive global library of paintings, films, books, newspapers, television programs, and databases, a library that would be accessible from any point on the globe. It is as if the modern version of the great library of Alexandria, which contained all the knowledge of the ancient world, is about to rematerialize in the infinite expanses of cyberspace.”1 She spoke rather breathlessly of the coming cyberbard, the Shakespeare of the internet, who would lead the way forward into a new era of digital narrative.

In her more sober reflections on the practical realities of the situation, Murray did acknowledge the conditionality of the advent of such a reality. “There are probably not two more difficult things to predict in this world than the future of art and the future of software,” she concludes, and in this she is probably right.2 Of her predictions for the future merging of the internet and more conventional media (television, radio, and the like), Murray acknowledges that these are “guesses, dependent on market forces as well as audience tastes.”3 Indeed, since Murray’s book a number of voices have been raised decrying the barriers to the utopian vision represented by the economics of the publishing world and such “market forces.”

Daniel J. Cohen and Roy Rosenzweig complain of “the balkanization of the web into privately owned digital storehouses,” and the fact that “the most important commercial purveyors of the past are…global multibillion-dollar information conglomerates like ProQuest, Reed Elsevier, and the Thomson Corporation, which charge libraries high prices for the vast digital databases of journals, magazines, newspapers, books, and historical documents that they control.”5 Indeed, Cohen and Rosenzweig have challenged the economics of traditional publishing by concurrently releasing the text of their digital history guide in a freely accessible and readably formatted web version, as well as in the traditional paper form for sale published by the University of Pennsylvania Press. In their words, “Academics and enthusiasts created the web; we should not quickly or quietly cede it to giant corporations and their pricy, gated materials. The most important weapon for building the digital future we want is to take an active hand in creating digital history in the present.”6 These two represent only the most recently pointed in a long line of complaints against what has been called the “commodification of information.”7

But even this picture is not quite right. It neither does justice to the tangible benefits generated by for-profit initiatives nor to the complexity of relying on volunteer and non-profit projects to make digital sources available. Is it better right now to have the possibility of access to a particular digital source, albeit for a fee, or not to have practical access to a text at all?

Perhaps the representation of digital publishing as a binary opposition between “multibillion-dollar information conglomerates” and “academics and enthusiasts” does not exhaust the possibilities. Alas, those of us in the humanities who look to the government for succor are likely to be jilted. Greg Crane, a professor of classics at Tufts University, points out the ambiguous position of the humanities when it comes to government sources of funding for academic technology. He writes, “The biggest government funders of academic technology are the National Institutes of Health and the National Science Foundation whose aggregate funding ($20 billion and $5 billion respectively) exceeds that of the National Endowment for the Humanities ($135 million requested for 2003) by a factor of 185.”8

Thankfully public sources of funding, or the lack thereof, are not the end of the tale. Most freely available digital history initiatives are underwritten in whole or in part by private charitable foundations. Indeed, two projects which Daniel J. Cohen co-directed, the September 11 Digital Archive and the Hurricane Digital Memory Bank, were funded by the Alfred P. Sloane Foundation. Such examples could be multiplied a hundredfold.

For better or for worse, the current situation is one in which an increasingly large amount of information of interest to scholars is readily accessible through various means. The vision of “a single comprehensive global library” is not a reality today, nor is it likely to be in the foreseeable future. Nevertheless, the rapid advance of technological innovation in academia is changing the face of scholarship.

Notes:

1. Janet H. Murray, Hamlet on the Holodeck: The Future of Narrative in Cyberspace (New York: Free Press, 1997), 84

2. Murray, Hamlet on the Holodeck, 284.

3. Murray, Hamlet on the Holodeck, 271.

4. For more on the contemporary situation facing the publication of scholarly journals, see my “Scholarship at the Crossroads: The Journal of Markets & Morality Case Study,” Journal of Scholarly Publishing 36, no. 3 (April 2005): 145–65.

5. Daniel J. Cohen and Roy Rosenzweig, Digital History: A Guide to Gathering, Preserving, and Presenting the Past on the Web (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2005), 12–13.

6. Cohen and Rosenzweig, Digital History, 13.

7. Howard Besser, “The Past Present, and Future of Digital Libraries,” in A Companion to the Digital Humanities, ed. Susan Schreibman, Ray Siemens, and John Unsworth, (Malden, MA: Blackwell Publishing, 2004), 573. See also Perry Willett, “Electronic Texts: Audiences and Purposes,” in A Companion to the Digital Humanities, 240–53.

8. Greg Crane, “Classics and the Computer: An End of the History,” in A Companion to the Digital Humanities, 50.

There’s on other thing I’d like to point out that occured to me during the conversation at the symposium. I was discussing this with the other presenter, Rosalind Reid who was representing scientific publishing. The vast difference in terms of dependence on government funding between the humanities and the sciences accounts for at least part of the corresponding expectation that scientific publishing should be open access. Such an expectation is certainly expressed in the recently proposed Federal Research Public Access Act of 2006, put forth by Senators Joe Lieberman (D-CT) and John Cornyn (R-TX). After all, the argument goes, since the taxpayers are in large part funding the work, they should have free access to the results that are produced. This pressure is not nearly as pronounced in humanities publishing.

One way for the government to get around the problem, from their point-of-view at least, is to start funding publication outlets directly, rather than simply underwriting research. That way, they can directly control how much access is given and to whom. Of course, then people might start to get worried about government interest and involvement in academic publishing in a way that they aren’t under the current system.

Update: Check out this interview with Tyler Cowen, Professor of Economics at George Mason University and author of the new book Good and Plenty, the Creative Successes of American Arts Funding.

  • http://blog.acton.org/index.html?/archives/915-Scan-this-Book!-Break-the-Law!.html Acton Institute PowerBlog

    As a brief follow-up to my post last week about the state of scholarly publishing, I want to highlight this recent article in The New York Times, “Scan This Book!” by Kevin Kelly, who is on the staff at Wired magazine.

    He conjures up the sa