In January, amidst a fairly widespread rush of media interest in the project, we took a look at Matthew Kirschenbaum’s Track Changes, a forthcoming study of how word processing software has affected the act and practice of composition. As we noted at the time, it’s a bit out of the ordinary for us to shine a spotlight on a book coming far enough in the future that we’d not yet even announced it in any of the traditional ways that publishers make things official. But this is a project that’s progressing in a more public manner than we’re accustomed to, at least at HUP.
It’s not as if scholarly projects are typically unknown prior to publication. In most cases, the work they present is the product of years of labor and countless discussions, conference papers, articles, seminars, etc. And it’s also not so out of the ordinary for a forthcoming book to be widely and eagerly anticipated well before we—the publisher—have offered details. Walter Johnson’s forthcoming study of Mississippi Valley slavery in the context of the histories of Atlantic capitalism and U.S. imperialism is likely as anticipated as anything we’ve ever had on the docket, for instance, and that’s despite our having made no public statement on the project thus far.
In the case of Johnson, though, the foreknowledge and early anticipation are largely within the academy. What’s different about Kirschenbaum’s book is the very public nature of the awareness, which, while surely a testament to his topic’s broad appeal, is mostly due to the open manner in which he’s conducting his work. In some respects this, too, is a function of the nature of the project, as when you’re seeking to answer questions about early users of word processing software it helps to have a megaphone making those users aware of your interest. But Kirschenbaum’s unveiled approach to scholarly production is also a hallmark of social-media-age academe, particularly within the digital humanities.
And, on that front, you don’t even need much personal interest in Kirschenbaum’s research project in order to benefit from his progress reports. In his latest, which you can read in full on his website, he contrasts the process of researching and writing his first book, 2008’s Mechanisms, with his approach this time through:
The backend of the [Mechanisms] project, meanwhile, was a mess. I wasn’t using citation management software. I kept drafts in bloated Word files with titles like “chapt 3 notes and fragments” that I would occasionally pick through to make sure I wasn’t overlooking anything worthwhile. I didn’t use an outliner. I didn’t use Zotero or EverNote. Online sources? PDFs sat in folders alongside of HTML scraped from the Web using my browser’s Save As function. Somehow, though, I found my footing along the way and worked through to completing the text as a manuscript (which subsequently underwent review, revision, and copy-editing). At the last minute I sent frantic emails soliciting permissions for images. Luckily my publisher took care of the index.
For this new book, on the other hand:
Everything went into EverNote: PDFs, images, Web clippings, stray URLS, notes to myself, audio files, interview transcripts, email (which EverNote can ingest automatically upon forwarding to a dedicated address)—everything. The great power of the software is, of course, that it is searchable, and so a simple string search on, say, “Asimov” (he has a particularly interesting word processing story) instantly put dozens of entries at my fingertips. I also made sure to keep up with another resource I had begun early on, a spreadsheet documenting information about individual writers and their first computer or word processing systems. For well over one hundred authors I now have data as to when they got their first computer, what it was, and what was the first thing they wrote and published on it (this will go into the book as an appendix). In LibraryThing I created a dedicated tag for trackchanges, allowing me to browse a virtual bookshelf of titles in my collection related to the project, as well as export a catalog (which subsequently went into EverNote). I started to regularly use the #trackchanges tag on Twitter, and also began a Tumblr blog (which I’ve kept up with in fits and spurts—something I wish I could be more diligent about).
The post in which he shares these details takes off from the observation that “nobody teaches you how to write a book,” even in grad school, where the task is usually presumed to be in your future. So in sharing his process and pointing out what he knows this time that he didn’t know the first—and in encouraging others to do the same—Kirschenbaum is offering a resource that could very well help young scholars plan their own projects. And he goes well beyond the nuts and bolts to also detail the freedom to more fully conceptualize an academic book when not racing against a tenure clock.
And, of course, even as he’s working on this literary history of the earliest generations of writing software, he’s producing the kind of documentation likely to be of great interest to whomever tackles a project on their descendants: the Zoteros, Scriveners, and Evernotes that are revolutionizing the way scholarly books are written.