Cathy N. Davidson: Don't be so quick to dismiss paper books [This op ed piece in the Durham Herald Sun expands on some points I made last week in a blog posting on the Gutenberg-e project, a wonderful project of born digital history electronic books (these are not books that were reprinted electronically but books actually conceived as digital productions). It's a great project. I love it. But I was concerned at the time about unrealistic hype about what the Gutenberg-e would accomplish vis a vis the so-called "crisis in scholarly publishing" and, almost a decade later, it is turning out Gutenberg-e was an experiment, not a solution. Here's the editorial, and the url in the Herald Sun:
Cathy N. Davidson: Don't be so quick to dismiss paper books
Mar 1, 2008
In 1999, Columbia University Press and the American HistoricalAssociation announced an ambitious project. Dubbed Gutenberg-e, thisproject would allow historians to circumvent conventional publishing(the kind that comes on paper, between book covers) and "simply"publish their books on line. There would be no paper version at all.Only an electronic one. Similar to a blog, except for seriousscholarship, all digital all the time.
Some of the finest minds back in 1999 insisted that this revolutionaryelectronic publishing venture would allow scholars to produce books farmore cheaply, faster, and more easily than ever before. They evenpredicted that Gutenberg-e would "solve" the crisis faced by scholarlypublishing, where serious research sells to such a specialized audiencethat it ends up losing money for its university press publishers.Gutenberg-e would solve all that. Some predicted Gutenberg-e wouldsupplant conventional publishing. Some said it was the best thing tohappen to book publishing since, well, Gutenberg.
Those predictions have proven to fall wildly short of the mark. A fewmillion dollars and countless hours of time spent by scholars, editors,electronic designers, programmers, librarians, publishers, and othershave yielded 36 e-books. The quality is high; but the hype has turnedout to be so wrong-headed as to provide a cautionary tale about thehype of new technologies. Many of the same commentators who insistedGutenberg-e would revolutionize how books are published now say that"unsurprisingly," the e-history books ended up costing far more thanconventional books and took longer and were incomparably more difficultto produce. The surprise is that, a decade ago, brilliant peoplethought that it could be otherwise.
If I could predict the biggest lesson that future historians will takefrom this electronic publishing experiment it is that even the verybest historians made the common mistake of assuming a new technologywould solve problems it cannot possibly solve. As a historian oftechnology, I recognize the trap. We seem to fall into it over and overagain, when any new technology comes along.
Technology is almost never a quick fix. It invariably introduces asmany problems as it solves. For example, I blog on various aspects ofnew media on the www.hastac.org website. It's fast for me and easy. Itype. I upload. But it is easy for me because a cadre of technologypeople invisibly support the website, the network, the server, thecomputational facilities, and all the rest, the whole constellation ofsupports of which my little blog is simply the "free and easy" tip ofthe iceberg. Someone is paying all those costs that make it possiblefor me to communicate to my readers in a fast and efficient way.
Since I was an administrator at Duke for eight years, I know that allthat hidden technology that supports my electronic publishing ventureis expensive and it is labor-intensive. It's rather like the U-PickStrawberries in a farmer's field. If you really believe that all youneed to do in order to have fresh, organic, right-out-of-the-gardenfruit is pick it, you have never been a farmer. Someone else ploughedthat field, cultivated, watched for pests, irrigated, and did what wasrequired so you could pluck the best. Technology is like that. It takesa lot of labor to create and support the revolutionary, newlabor-saving device.
For me, the biggest problem with born-digital electronic publishing isthat it relies on whatever technology exists at the time you publish.Platforms change; websites go defunct. Lots gets left behind. I can'tpredict if my blog will be viewable by readers two years from now, letalone a dozen years or two hundred years.
When I write a book, I want it to last, which is why I choose topublish my books on paper, not just on a url. Paper remains the besttechnology when you're writing for posterity. The history paperbacks Ibought for $9.95 a decade ago sit on my bookshelf now, pretty much asthey did when I first read them. They require no upkeep, batteries,uploads, downloads, rebooting, or software updates, nothing, really,except an occasional dusting or pleasant rereading.
Cathy N. Davidson is the Ruth F. DeVarney Professor of English andJohn Hope Franklin Humanities Institute Professor of InterdisciplinaryStudies at Duke University.