University and academic presses have long been essential to the sharing of new ideas and challenging of old assumptions, a tradition we’re celebrating during this second annual University Press Week. This year’s focus is on the ways in which AAUP member presses are helping to drive innovation in both format and subject matter, and so today we’re pleased to offer a UP Week Blog Tour post from Harvard professor Jeffrey Schnapp on the future of scholarly communication. Schnapp is Professor of Romance Languages & Literatures, faculty director of metaLAB (at) Harvard, faculty co-director of the Berkman Center for Internet and Society, and general editor of the metaLABprojects series, the first three titles of which we’ll publish in June.
What is a scholarly book? The question has an artificial ring to it even today, in the midst of a revolution that is steamrolling just about every sector of publishing, crushing longstanding assumptions but also clearing new spaces for experimentation and conversation.
To nearly anyone who has had the privilege of belonging to a research community over the course of the past century, the scholarly book has long seemed something of a given. And what was given was a set of conventions that, in the course of the twentieth century, gelled into verities that varied only slightly with respect to discipline and field. They encompassed notions regarding the proper scale and scope of a scholarly argument; the units that make such arguments up; the primacy of certain forms of evidence; standards of reference and proof; and a basic toolkit of argumentative units (from words to paragraphs to pages to subchapters to chapters). Bundled up into a discrete, compact, mechanically reproduced unit, nourished and sustained by university publishing, the structure in question has served the cause of learning exceptionally well over the course of the past century.
No wave of any digital magic wand is about to vaporize the scholarly book or the medium of print (any more than readers are about to give up their corporeality in order to evolve into pixels on an LCD). But as knowledge forms migrate to digital platforms along with nearly everything else, from culture and scholarship to archives and social networks, new alignments arise. Revolutions in media are never reducible to the mere substitution of old media by the new. Rather, they are about reshufflings of decks into which new cards have been inserted. This implies the emergence of new genres, norms, and forms. It also implies new hybridities that, in the case of the digital revolution, permit riffing off of convergences and divergences between the online and the offline, the digital and the analog.
The scholarly book was overdue for an overhaul and in my own work along the edges of what is now referred to as the Digital Humanities (but that I usually think of in terms of “knowledge design”), experimentation with new models and modes of bookishness has been a key concern. What could or should books become in the digital age? What medium-specific functions do we now want them to perform or relinquish? What’s the look of new or emerging knowledge forms when they find their way into print?