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The networked table of contents for “A New Vision for Islamic Pasts and Futures,” viewed on a laptop.

Courtesy of Allison Levy

Is A New Vision for Islamic Pasts and Futures—an interactive, open-access, born-digital monograph developed by Brown University Digital Publications and published in August by MIT Press—the monograph of the future? Asking readers to imagine Islam anew, as a vast web of interconnected traces seen through the prism of time, the book opens with a networked table of contents. Portals lead to different time periods across different parts of the world, inviting readers to explore Islam via a path of their choosing. In designing a one-of-a-kind trajectory that follows their own interests and queries, the reader, effectively, creates their own journey while traversing the world of ideas and evidence that has been curated by the author.

This groundbreaking interface, says author Shahzad Bashir, Aga Khan Professor of Islamic Humanities at Brown, “performs, rather than simply states, the book’s argument—namely, that we see pasts and futures as fields of unlimited possibility that come alive through a combination of close observation and ethical positioning.”

In recent years, Brown University Library has expanded its innovation in digital scholarship by pushing beyond the boundaries of the traditional printed monograph. Launched with generous support from the Mellon Foundation, Brown University Digital Publications provides faculty with expert support for developing enhanced born-digital scholarly works that present research and advance arguments in ways not achievable in a conventional format. These multimodal scholarly works undergo rigorous peer review and are published by some of the most distinguished university presses. Other landmark publications include Furnace and Fugue: A Digital Edition of Michael Maier’s Atalanta Fugiens (1618) with Scholarly Commentary (University of Virginia Press, 2020) and Shadow Plays: Virtual Realities in an Analog World (Stanford University Press, 2022). Nine other works are currently in development and represent a broad disciplinary range: Africana studies, American studies, archaeology and the ancient world, ethnic studies, history, history of art and architecture, Italian studies, literary arts, and performance studies.

Experimentation with new scholarly forms is taking place across a number of libraries, humanities centers and university presses. A recently released white paper I co-authored, “Multimodal Digital Monographs: Content, Collaboration, Community,” reports the findings of a spring 2021 summit co-hosted by Brown and Emory University, exploring this landscape in depth via case studies of eight published or in-development works. Funding organizations such as the Mellon Foundation and the National Endowment for the Humanities, among others, have made much of this innovative scholarship possible. As viable models begin to emerge, stakeholders in digital scholarly publishing are looking to the future and considering next steps:

  • How can we increase the visibility and reach of humanities scholarship to audiences both within and beyond the academy?
  • How can we expand and support the voices and perspectives represented in the practice and production of reimagined forms of scholarship?
  • How is this enterprise sustainable?

A mobile phone showing the landing page for 'A New Vision for Islamic Pasts and Futures.' It reads 'Interpretative essays on Islamic artifacts, texts, and phenomena entwining over fourteen centuries, by Shahzad Bashir," above a blue button that reads "Explore."The Brown University Library–MIT Press collaboration, exemplified by A New Vision for Islamic Pasts and Futures, provides a promising path forward.

Besides the field-changing union of form and content that characterizes Bashir’s digital monograph, the partnership between Brown University Library and the MIT Press also reimagines scholarly publishing, bringing together distinctive research library and university press capabilities for common ends in the service of scholarship and public understanding.

The impact has been immediate. Within 10 days of publication, A New Vision for Islamic Pasts and Futures attracted 1,700 new users from 71 countries (scholarly monographs typically have a print run in the low to midhundreds, by contrast). The global reach attained thus far is very encouraging. The data suggest that rapid and broad access to scholarship via the internet and social media is transforming not only the environment within which academic work happens, but also the readership of academic work, connecting scholarship—in ways not seen before now—with audiences beyond the academy.

Access also means inclusion. Monograph publishing in the digital age must be intentional, looking beyond audience reach to audience engagement, speaking to new readers and challenging assumptions. For example, Chapter 4 in A New Vision for Islamic Pasts and Futures takes up various forms of evidence from different parts of the world to argue against portraying Islam through generalizations that obscure the specificity of human experience. As Bashir writes, “people’s highly diversified circumstances speak to the illimitability of how we should consider Islam … It varies by gender and social class. For some, Islam is the source of emancipation and salvation, while for others, it is imprisoning and discriminatory.” The variety of lives depicted in this chapter generates complex views and invites deep engagement.

Monograph publishing must also center the lived experience and knowledge of diverse authors, a shared commitment that forms the basis for a second collaboration between Brown University Library and the MIT Press. The multimodal book series On Seeing, in development by MIT since 2018, will center underrepresented voices and perspectives, shaping new conversations at the intersection of visual culture and subjects such as race, care, decolonization, privilege and precarity. The first title, by Kimberly Juanita Brown, will be published in spring 2024. The MIT Press Grant Program for A photo and text from one of the pages of Bashir's book.Diverse Voices, which provides funding for new work by authors whose voices have been chronically underrepresented across the arts, humanities and sciences, will be an ongoing resource for series authors. The MIT Press Grant Fund for Diverse Voices will also support brand design for the series by a designer of color, aligning form with ethos.

The series will be launched alongside a community engagement program tailored to each specific volume and supported by a Diversity in Digital Publishing postdoctoral fellow hosted by Brown University Library. Resources might include an online hub for knowledge sharing, a downloadable community conversation tool kit, an author interview or podcast, or free-to-the-public events such as book readings and structured conversations in libraries, bookstores or public arts institutions.

In working together to produce and disseminate essential knowledge for broad audiences, Brown University Library and the MIT Press are also addressing issues of scalability and sustainability. A critical goal of the series is to mobilize knowledge creation and sharing. To this end, On Seeing will comprise a publication suite that includes a multiplicity of forms. The print book, providing a revenue stream to help offset costs, will be offered at a reasonable price and distributed globally in order to reach the widest possible readership. The enhanced, open-access digital publication will be developed using the open-source publishing platform PubPub, which introduces a less bespoke approach to interactive design and development.

Speaking more broadly to the cost structure as it relates to creating born-digital enhanced publications, Brown’s initial goals focused on learning what it would take to support the development of these kinds of works in a university-supported model. Mellon funding allowed for the hire of an in-house editor and a designer (since regularized in the library’s budget). To develop these projects with the quality and complexity appropriate to the authors’ ideas, we also needed the services of outside vendors (as is typical for digital scholarship projects). As the work proceeded, Mellon grants to presses and other institutions were leading to other transformations in the scholarly publishing model, such as the development of new digital platforms and workflow tools. This expanded our ability to meet a wider range of developmental needs.

Some projects still call for a more customized treatment based on the nature of the scholarly materials and arguments that are central to the author’s vision. We maintain a maximum project budget of $50,000, and some faculty authors obtain outside grants to support the work. Other projects can be well served at a far lower cost through platforms like Manifold (used for Race & in America) or PubPub (to be used for On Seeing). (By contrast, the cost to a press of preparing a scholarly book for publication ranges from $15,140 to $129,909, according to the widely cited 2016  Ithaka S+R study, “The Costs of Publishing Monographs.”) We look to publishers to handle peer review, copy editing and marketing. For us, serving the author’s work is paramount, and we benefit from a rapidly evolving landscape of possibilities that balance costs across the publication portfolio.

We are seeing the payoff from these investments through the expansive reach and impact that this approach to digital publication, together with presses gravitating to open access, can offer. For example, Furnace and Fugue, to cite once again Brown’s first born-digital publication, has attracted more than 16,000 unique visitors from across 167 countries since its launch two years ago. The print run would have been 500 copies. Furnace and Fugue was just awarded the American Historical Association’s 2022 Roy Rosenzweig Prize for Creativity in Digital History.

As demonstrated by Brown University Library’s press partnerships, cross-organizational collaboration can make meaningful interventions into how and for whom knowledge is generated and shared. By making a commitment to one another in the service of broadening public understanding, research libraries and university presses together can push the boundaries of scholarly publishing in new and necessary ways, reimagining the monograph to engage an expanded readership for the greatest possible impact.

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