Books, Online

Some grant-funded projects at university presses are looking pretty exciting. 

April 20, 2015

So much of the contemporary academic library collection is digital – but most of these digital texts look like journals and books as they were published before the Internet existed, with some exceptions. Quite a few of the books in digital packages lack images because rights weren’t secured covering electronic editions and, I guess, vendors hoped nobody would notice. (They have.) This is just one of the reasons why I’ve been skeptical of subscribing to ebook packages.

But there are some neat things that could be done to take advantages of digital opportunities, extending the book in a variety of ways. Lately there have been some fascinating things brewing, jump-started by Mellon Foundation grants have been trickling out this year, covered previously at Inside Higher Ed. I’m quite pleased with the grant that went to West Virginia University. There's some history behind this one, though not tied to a university press. Some time ago I wrote about Kairos, an open access and digitally innovative journal that has been published since 1996. The current editor of the journal has landed one of these grants to work with Norwegian designers and coders to develop a free and open source publishing platform that will enable hosting of multimedia, text, and data sets – a new digital home for Kairos and no doubt many new publications that want to publish digital scholarship that goes beyond the PDF page. (More at Kairos.)  

A short while ago, the University of Michigan Press announced a grant to develop another open source platform, working with the UM libraries and with university presses at Indiana, Minnesota, Northwestern, and Penn State to build an extensible platform using Hydra/Fedora. I like the library involvement in this one, though I admit to being barely familiar with the development software, envisioning a multi-headed serpent wearing dashing haberdashery. 

Just today I saw an announcement about the University of Minnesota Press partnering with the GC Digital Scholarship Lab at the Graduate Center of the City University of New York to launch a program called Manifold Scholarship, which will allow a book to have dynamic and expanded presence online (as does Debates in the Humanities, which they already developed in print and on the web). I was very taken with publisher Doug Armato's idea of recognizing and encouraging "serial scholarship" - the flow of ideas that lead up to the creation of books and the subsequent commentary and annotation; currently books as self-contained objects don't lend themselves to these connections and flows. I hope this project will enable some of that interaction and extension. (A side note to this press release - I first saw it mentioned on Twitter, linking to a PDF version. When I searched for it I got the HTML webpage, but double-checked because the PDF text seemed longer and more substantial. It's the exact same text, but somehow I'm conditioned to take PDF layout more seriously. I'm not sure if that says something about me - or if the design of one is actually more pleasing to the eye than the other.)

I'm still partial to printed books - ones that have a physical geography that lets me flip back through, knowing that the thing I'm looking for is on the upper left hand side, about a third of the way into the book, ones that I can spread out next to other books if I need to look at several at once. I also continue to prefer print for pleasure reading. That immersive sensation seems to come easier on paper, though ebooks are handy for travel and much easier for me to hold when they run over 600 pages and I want to read in bed without risking a concussion.But I'm excited about these collaborative projects, particularly when they lead to open source code and open access ideas. 

By the way, if you happen to be in Minneapolis Tuesday evening (4/21), at 7pm the wonderful specialist bookstore Once Upon a Crime will be hosting a University of Minnesota Press author - Vidar Sundstøl, a Norwegian author whose Minnesota Trilogy has brought Scandinavian crime fiction close to home. The third book, The Ravens, is just being released and I'll be doing an interview with the author at the bookstore. I enjoyed the entire trilogy though I have to say I liked reading them best in print.


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