New Books and MIT's Uncommon Sense

Free books! And a sensible if revolutionary move by MIT Libraries.

March 29, 2016

The other day I saw a notice that two more book have been published by the WAC Clearinghouse. One in particular intrigued me. Nathan Shepley’s Placing the History of College Writing: Stories from the Incomplete Archive looks at the history of composition at two institutions, the University of Houston and Ohio University in Athens, Ohio before 1950. He finds student writing is reflective of its location in institutions that are shaped by a variety of forces. It tells us something about how students saw themselves as students and as citizens of very specific geographies. Now I’m curious about the history of writing at my own institution. I don’t know anything about it before the start of our Writing Across the Curriculum program in the 1980s – and there are some tempting records and student papers preserved in our archives. Hmm...

By the way – it’s an open access book. You can read it right now as a PDF or ePub, convert it to read on a Kindle using Calibre, or buy a paper copy if you prefer that format. All of the books and journals at the WAC Clearinghouse are open access and have been for years. Chances are you’ll find something there that will inspire your teaching or perhaps a book you can assign in a course. Your students will love the price.

Today I saw that Peter Suber has just released a new book, Knowledge Unbound, a collection of his essays about open access with a foreword by Robert Darnton. MIT Press has released an open access version under a creative commons license. Well played, Suber, and well done, MIT! I quickly downloaded a copy to read in the near future. I’m sure I’ve seen some of these essays before, but not all of them, and having them all in one place will be handy. I’m particularly looking forward to “Saving the Oodlehood and Shebangity of the Internet.” Because it sounds worth saving, whatever it is.

Also added to my reading list: a new blog, In the Open, which has a sterling list of contributors who will be writing about libraries, publishing, and scholarship. The latest post takes a look at being a subject in the Ithaka study of the cost of publishing monographs and asks whether we actually know what publishing would cost if we didn’t do it the way we currently do. Interesting question. I also read there that MIT has recently decided to do something that is radical, but shouldn’t be.

Libraries – at least larger ones – have in recent years added “scholarly communications” offices and services, usually with a small staff and even smaller budgets and even less authority. These are the folks who help their community understand the value of open access to research, may help faculty make open access choices, and may be in charge of publishing support and/or an institutional repository where versions of research and other material can be made public, depending on what rights an author retains. These are good efforts, but they're often seen as an extra, a frill, not the basic work of the library. What’s rare is for the entire library’s collections and services to be considered part of scholarly communications. Which, when you think about it, is a little weird. Why are journals and books not considered scholarly communications? Well, at MIT they now are, and Ellen Finnie explains how making decisions holistically and based on values is the kind of big-picture sustainability that Michael Pollan writes about when it comes to how we choose our food - decisions that have far-reaching effects.

It’s good to know that MIT is taking this values-based approach to collections of all kinds. It’s great to have a new and open access book of essays by Peter Suber to read. It’s fine to revisit the WAC Clearinghouse and see what’s new. It’s all encouragement for the rest of us that a more accessible world of scholarship is possible and shouldn't be something we care about on the fringes of our organizations and in our spare time.  


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