There are two deaths being remarked upon at this year's meeting of the Organization of American Historians. The first is the eminent scholar of African American history John Hope Franklin, who died earlier this week at 94. Read about it on the American Historical Association Blog, where I got this lovely picture and you will find links to several major obituaries. Franklin's scholarly significance to the profession was of a level most of us can only dream of, but it is also worth remembering that he began his career in a time that few African-Americans were admitted to study for the Ph.D. Those who succeeded in obtaining a university appointment often faced enormous hurdles in their careers because of segregation: not being admitted to the conference hotel, not being able to eat on site or, in some cases attend professional functions where food and drink were served because of Jim Crow laws designed to prevent mixed race socializing.
The second "death" being discussed widely here at the OAH is that the University of Michigan Press has thrown in the towel when it comes to words on paper, and will henceforth exist as a digital publishing company. See Inside Higher Ed's Scott Jaschik Farewell to the Printed Monograph; and Scott McLemee, also of Inside Higher Ed, in a follow-up piece.
There are Chicken Littles out there who see this as the beginning of the end for books as we know it, and I doubt that is true. I am on the side of making lemonade from these lemons. You don't have to be sitting on a book prize committee, as I am, where you see the best of what has been published, to know that there are a great many volumes published each year whose audience is highly specialized. Many of these volumes, I am sure, barely break even if that. Most don't even make it into many book stores, in part because the runs are small and the books expensive, and in part because getting to the people who will read them is hard (how many medievalists work at your university? Live in your community?) Amazon.com, widely excoriated as having contributed to the death of the independent bookstore, has been a boon to academic publishing because it serves this important function. Might the expansion of digital also hold more promise than danger too? At least for some fields?
One question that this economic crisis ought to provoke is: if we believe that the importance of what we do transcends vulgar markets, should any forms of scholarly publication be held hostage to market forces, dominant university curricula, or even --as my right wing readers would put it -- "intellectual fads"? For my money, digital publishing could be a boon to some fields, particularly those where sales have fallen off in the past decade but which still constitute critical fields of study. In addition, scholars who rely heavily on a cultural archive -- images, music -- may find that digital publishing allows them to bring a new kind of "book" to their audiences that would otherwise be prohibitively expensive. Many presses are now asking for subventions to publish photographs and reproductions and, while I have known several scholars who have included DVDs in books that use a musical archive, the fact that it is not widespread suggests to me that this is also an expensive option and not one that is workable for libraries. I also know more than one author publishing in queer studies who has been asked to remove sexual images from a book, not because they will be offensive to that book's audience, but because they are offensive to the printer in Tennessee, Indonesia or what have you. Serious thought about making images available on line that either link to a book or are part of the digital edition would be a step forward in this area. Finally, more digitally published books and more freedom to access them would also help us in the classroom, where many of us have to shape our reading lists to take the reality of limited student budgets into account.
Hell, we might even sell more books if they could be obtained at less expense. Tiffany scholarship at Walmart prices!
But historians -- let's not stay as behind the curve as we are on this. The major historical associations need to create a joint task force which includes editors from the major presses. This task force would create a set of guidelines for scholarship that conforms to this emerging publishing genre. Scholars need to think seriously about what digital publishing brings to their work, but also what its pitfalls are; and we need to have a firm statement so that scholars coming up for tenure with digital work will not be perceived having turned to a second-best option after having "failed" to publish a "real book." While the recession has made digital publishing a reality for the University of Michigan (and I suspect others will follow), this has been on the horizon for a long time and we are sadly behind schedule when it comes to adjusting to an important new reality.