Blog for DH+Lib: where digital humanities and librarianship meet

Beyond Dead or Alive Books: Redefining and Repositioning Scholarly Content in a New Knowledge Environment 1

29 Apr 2015 | Features
In this post, Chad Gaffield (University of Ottawa) reflects on the Association of Research Libraries’ 2014 Fall Forum.

The compelling, timely, and provocative title of the ARL Fall Forum 2014 could have been articulated several different ways. Rather than “Wanted Dead or Alive: The Scholarly Monograph,” the title might well have been “Wanted Dead or Alive: University Presses” or even, “Wanted Dead or Alive: Research Libraries.”

These alternatives came to mind during a stimulating and, at times, both inspiring and discouraging discussion of the rapidly changing and uncertain landscape of scholarly communication. I had the good fortune to be part of the closing panel that brought together highly respected leaders representing university presses, research libraries, and major funders.

My own contribution to this urgent and complex topic draws upon two professional experiences: first, as a professor of History (with related research and professional activities over the years); and as President and CEO between 2006 and 2014 of the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada (SSHRC), the major funder of campus-based research, including support for knowledge mobilization such as scholarly monographs.

Even though the destiny of scholarly monographs may not determine the destiny of libraries or university presses, they all currently share many of the same underlying drivers of change

One of the key strengths of the ARL Fall Forum was its explicit effort to use the focus of scholarly monographs to make connections among all those involved in its production, use, and preservation. Over the years, I have had many occasions to see a much more segmented approach involving separate meetings of publishers or librarians or funders or academics.

In fact, it has often surprised me to learn that leaders from the same post-secondary institution have each left campus without the knowledge of their colleagues to develop strategic plans with their counterparts at other institutions. The resulting plans of librarians, publishers, scholars, provosts, or research vice-presidents have sometimes overlapped but more often have exposed competing and contradictory assumptions that defy integration at the institutional level.

For this reason, the ARL Fall Forum rightly focused on the urgent need for a common understanding of the desired eco-system of scholarly communication within which different participants can identify their specific and complementary roles, contributions, and responsibilities. Even though the destiny of scholarly monographs may not determine the destiny of libraries or university presses, they all currently share many of the same underlying drivers of change.

We do not live in a technologically-driven age but we do live in a technologically-enabled age that is proving to be paradigm-shifting, with DH often leading the way

My perspective first situates the question of scholarly monographs within the larger campus contexts of professorial careers, institutional imperatives, and fiscal conditions. In turn, I place these contexts within the profound conceptual changes that are being enabled, accelerated, and influenced by digital technologies, as illustrated by the field now called Digital Humanities (DH). We do not live in a technologically-driven age but we do live in a technologically-enabled age that is proving to be paradigm-shifting, with DH often leading the way.

One of the most insightful texts about these deep changes was published fifty years ago. In a substantial report entitled Libraries of the Future, J.C.R. Licklider presented the results of a two-year inquiry into how computers could be used in “library work – i.e., the operations connected with assembling information in recorded form and of organizing and making it available for use” as described in the foreward by Verner W. Clapp of the sponsoring organization, the Council on Library Resources Inc. Interestingly, the Council’s motivation for this inquiry was the perception that “research libraries are becoming choked from the proliferation of publication, and that the resulting problems are not of a kind that respond to merely more of the same – ever and ever larger bookstacks and ever and ever more complicated catalogues.”

Licklider’s early 1960s perception that “more of the same” was not the answer to the “proliferation of publication” may seem quaint given the subsequent avalanche of new journals and books, but his proposed solution resonates with current discussion of new not-of-a-kind models for scholarly communication.

Licklider began by emphasizing the “‘passiveness’ of the printed page” which limits severely the interaction of humans with the page’s content. He reasoned that “If books are intrinsically less than satisfactory for the storage, organization, retrieval and display of information, then libraries of books are bound to be less than satisfactory also.” In turn, “if human interaction with the body of knowledge is conceived of as a dynamic process involving repeated examinations and interconnections of very many small and scattered parts, then any concept of a library that begins with books on shelves is sure to encounter trouble.” By imagining computer-enabled “precognitive systems” for information storage, organization, and retrieval by the year 2000, Licklider moved the focus from the medium (e.g. a book) to the substance (knowledge, information, insight).

A half-century later, we are still struggling to perceive with clarity the full implications of focusing on content rather than container. One example from my experience as SSHRC President illustrates the value of embracing this new focus. Our challenge was to update support for high-quality learned journals that, for many years, had been eligible for an operating grant calculated, in part, on the number of subscribers to an annual production of several print issues. In an Open Access and on-time digital knowledge environment, this approach was no longer appropriate.

The new approach focuses exclusively on the value-added of filtering and curating the communication of research results. SSHRC’s adjudication committee examines only the scholarly quality of the past three years of work made available by the journal editors (thereby taking an agnostic approach to the medium of the work). The grant covers a set amount of $850 (Can) for each scholarly article with a maximum of $30,000 per year for each journal. The amount reflects an estimate of the cost of the scholarly filtering and initial editorial work. The assumption is that institutional hosts will support the other editorial, dissemination, and preservation costs. This approach has made it possible for journal editors to move completely online and to adopt gold OA (without page charges) if the host institution (usually a research library) can provide the needed complementary infrastructure.

If this model is extended to books, we could rephrase the question at hand to ask: Who will help authors create, share, and preserve long-form scholarly content?

The DH community has in recent years contributed profound insights as well as innovative policies and practices that embrace the value of content over the specific medium of expression. In this way, DH perspectives address (admittedly, more implicitly than explicitly) current questions about scholarly monographs, university presses, and research libraries. Rather than retaining these categories, Ray Siemens and his colleagues aptly call for the creation of “new knowledge environments” that transcend twentieth-century definitions of scholarly communication. Toward this end, the Implementing New Knowledge Environments (INKE) collaborative has been hosting an annual conference that showcases a variety of projects designed to “transform scholarly production” in the Digital Age.

From this perspective, the ARL Fall Forum 2014 was aimed at helping redefine and reposition the content of the 20th century scholarly monograph in the new knowledge environment of the 21st century. Indeed, no speaker suggested that the scholarly monograph should, or even will, die; rather, the focus was on renewal and sustainability of long-form content in a rapidly changing context.

What was the added value of the 20th century scholarly-monograph content and what aspects of this should endure today? What new value is possible and appropriate? And what policies, practices, and financial support are required to realize the potential of a redefined and repositioned scholarly-monograph content?

These questions rightly assume that the drivers of change are not, in the first instance, either technological or financial. New technologies are important to the extent that they are enabling deep conceptual changes that probe to the heart of higher education and that would be transforming campuses (albeit more slowly) even in a continued print culture. Similarly, financial pressures are accelerating efforts (rather than creating them) to embrace new ways of thinking that would be (and are) inspiring new policies and practices even on wealthy campuses.

In order to continue making progress in creating the new knowledge environments of the 21st century, institutions of higher education (especially the leading research universities) must bring together their university presses, vice-presidents academic and research, their CIOs, and their university librarians in order to develop a single strategic plan. These senior academic leaders must embrace in theory and in practice the new digitally-enabled ways in which their operations are becoming interdependent and, indeed, intertwined components of a single scholarly infrastructure that, in turn, contributes to larger scholarly infrastructures both locally and globally. The result of this new approach should be the development of an integrated institutional plan that aims to create a robust digitally-enabled knowledge environment that supports all learning on campus (by students, professors, and research partners) while also contributing to the larger knowledge environment (requiring, therefore, adherence to, and contribution to, standards).

In undertaking this work, institutions would do well to involve digital humanists both for domain expertise in creating knowledge environments and for experience in working across 20th century boundaries. Digital humanist collaborations have characteristically included those in diverse departments, libraries, campuses, and countries. While a great deal of work is ahead, the success of such collaborations thus far should inspire optimism among all those like the participants of the ARL Fall Forum who seek to benefit from the past while building a better future.

Creative Commons LicenseThis work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License.


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