Wednesday, April 08, 2009

Digital Publishing

Inside Higher Ed published an article by Scott McLemee today that summarizes an article by Sandy Thatcher in Against the Grain, a library newsletter that is not yet available online. McLemee says that Against the Grain isn't "well-known," but I don't think that's true, at least in my library. McLemee is correct, however, when he describes the newsletter as offering "a running colloquy for far-sighted discussion among librarians, publishers, and others in the more scholarly reaches of the book trade."

McLemee's purpose is to summarize an article published by Sandy Thatcher entitled, "The Hidden Digital Revolution in Scholarly Publishing: POD, SRDP, the 'Long Tail," and Open Access." Thatcher argues that

[T]he peculiar challenges faced by university presses have given them an incentive to uses digital resources in ways that put them somewhat ahead of their peers in the world of trade or mass-market publishing. Given the small market for most scholarly titles, academic publishers were in a unique position to benefit from short-run digital publishing (SRDP) and print-on-demand technologies. 'The bane of the entire publishing industry for centuries ... has 'been the need ... to make guesses up front about the lifetime sales potential of each book. ...The quest for economies of scale led to big inventories of unsold books ...'
Digital publishing offers a solution to this problem, according to Thatcher, because "the unit cost for digital printing is flat ... and you don't have unsold inventory piling up. With a monograph prepared in digital format, it is possible to issue it, as the demand dictates, through short-run or on-demand publishing." Positive effects include less damage to the environment, better cash flow, and more willingness of publishers to take a chance on marginal titles. Certainly this would benefit authors and the free flow of information in the long run. Thatcher calls this a "hidden revolution." Further, he believes that "publication of a work in digital format does not preempt its existence as a paper-and-ink artifact, but rather enables it." The biggest problem at present with digital publishing is illustrated books, particularly books on art history, where the quality of the illustrations is crucial. Thatcher is confident that this problem can be overcome, however. McLemee concludes his interesting discussion of Thatcher's article by pointing out that some books belong on your shelves because they "shape your life, or shake it--and you will always want a copy of those around." Others books you read for the information they contain and move on; a digital version of such books is adequate. As McLemee puts it, "some of the less ravishing moments in your readerly experience may involve a handheld screen" and not a physical book.


Betsy McKenzie said...

There was a charming essay in the chronicle of higher ed not too long ago about a prof who had to weed her library as she moved from her house to an apartment. She took a librarian's advice and selected books that she had to keep with her -- either stuff she referred to constantly and could not access online easily or oddball stuff that was not easily replaced. It was a nice set of criteria and worth thinking about. Sadly, I can't locate the essay either in my stack of paper or online, yet I'm sure it was the Chronicle.

Marie S. Newman said...

Yes, I remember it too, and I think it was the Chronicle.

Marie S. Newman said...

Here's the article, Betsy. It's indeed from the Chronicle, 2/20/09.

All Booked Up


I'm empty nesting — or "empty nexting," as a friend so charmingly mistyped it. I've moved out of the big Victorian house in the far reaches of Brooklyn where I've lived most of my adult life and into a small co-op apartment in Manhattan, just an elevator ride away from city life.

Lots of us baby-boomer professors are making similar changes. We're growing older, moving toward retirement. We're wrapping up our work and our lives, getting rid of the objects with which we have surrounded and even defined ourselves. The hardest part for many of us is dealing with our accumulated books.

One of my colleagues recently begged me to find some graduate students who'd take the books lining his office walls. I took a look. Yes, I too had fond memories of that intro text I had used in the 60s, of the early labeling-theory literature, the groups-and-organizations books of 30 years ago — but I didn't know anyone who wanted them.

So when the time came for me to do my own "going out of business" sale, I thought I was prepared. I'd be ruthless: toss out the old, save only what I was still using, and move on. That approach worked in the kitchen and in my clothes closet. It even got me through the attic, though sorting through the old baby clothes was hard. I ended up getting my son, my oldest child, to keep me company as I waxed nostalgic over his and his siblings' babyhoods. But I kept just a small box of their childhood possessions, and out went the rest.

Emboldened, I turned next to the books. My library was a fairly ordinary size for an academic, maybe 1,500 books. Some I've had since graduate school; most were acquired as I worked on particular projects or taught particular courses over the last four decades. Unlike the baby clothes in the attic, my books are still in use, and I'm still buying more. But I no longer have an attic and a huge office all to myself. Half my books had to go.

It was about 20 years ago that I first had to deal with having more books than space. Then they were stacked sideways on top of the orderly rows of other titles on the shelves and heaped in the corners of my offices at home and work. It was getting harder to find the book I wanted because all the other volumes were in the way. I knew I had to prune my collection, but I couldn't figure out where to start.

Then I spent a day at the Hastings Center, a bioethics think tank that was settling into new space at the time. I found myself in the library, maybe 10 times the size of my collection. I asked the librarian for some guidance, and she offered me two invaluable pieces of advice: Don't get rid of things you can't replace, and budget a 10-percent replacement cost.

That meant the copy of Durkheim's Rules of Sociological Method, which every sociologist has to have read but which I hadn't opened for a decade, could go because I could get another copy in no time if necessary. But the weird book of advice for young mothers, written by some physician I'd never heard of, stayed.

And the idea of a replacement budget was brilliant. It allowed me to run out and buy a book I'd mistakenly gotten rid of. If I ended up replacing less than 10 percent of the books I'd cleared out, I was under budget. In fact, over the next 20 years I needed to replace only half a dozen books.

So this time when I walked into my office with a bunch of boxes, I felt confident that only half of my books would go with me, and the others would go away. But as we should all have learned from the environmentalists, there's no such place as away. Things have to go somewhere. Old books, if no library or bookstore wants to rescue them, go to the garbage.

The garbage! That was beyond imagining. I'm not the least bit religious, but as I explained to Ananya Mukherjea, the colleague and former student who kindly came to help me, Jews do not throw books away. I'd been taught that if a book drops on the floor, you kiss it when you pick it up. Ananya said that just wasn't practical for Hindis, who spend too much of their lives on the floor. But she'd been taught that if your foot touches the book, then you kiss it.

Thus it was easy to divide our project: I stayed in my office and boxed the books that were coming with me, and Ananya respectfully piled into trash bags the volumes that nobody — not libraries, bookstores, friends, former students, or even the Salvation Army — would want. Until the recycling truck came by, a few days later, I cried whenever I walked out the front door and saw them.

Since the last time I pruned my library, the Internet has come along and changed the way we use books. Instead of reaching over to a shelf to look up a quote, verify a publication date, or check the spelling of an author's name, now I Google what I need, perhaps checking Amazon's shelves rather than my own. And that raises a new question: Why keep any book? Almost any volume I own can be replaced easily, quickly, and usually cheaply. That, of course, helps explain why nobody else wanted the books I was not moving.

What I had to come to grips with is that although books are no less precious in terms of their value in my life, the Web means that they are far less precious as objects. The librarian's advice no longer applies. If I could move only the volumes I couldn't replace, that absurd book of advice to young mothers was still going to make the cut, but very little else would. I'd be left with an assortment of oddities, not a library.

In the end, I made some decisions about which books to move with me based less on their usefulness than on sentimentality. Yes, I can be a sociologist and not own Marx, Weber, or Durkheim, but I cannot be me and not own shelves of books on childbirth, eugenics, and — yes, I know, a dated collection — race theory.

So hundreds of books went into boxes and will be unpacked as soon as my son finishes building me bookcases in my new home. Meanwhile I feel kind of naked without them. The other day, I was talking on the phone to a student about something, and I swung my chair around to reach for the shelf where the book, the exact right book for our conversation, should have been. No book. No shelf. Boxes only. Sure, I could swivel right back to the computer and get the reference I wanted through Google. But I wanted the information there, on my shelf, a physical extension of my mind.

Barbara Katz Rothman is a professor of sociology at Baruch College of the City University of New York. She is author, most recently, of Weaving a Family: Untangling Race and Adoption (Beacon Press, 2005).

Julie Jones said...

Thanks for this post, Marie. Really enjoyed it.

Betsy McKenzie said...

Thank you, Marie! I was going crazy yesterday!