Following the metaphor dodo or dog (an extinct bird versus man’s best friend), the future of the scholarly book in the digital age was examined at the Dodo or Dog conference last week. A handful of prominent Dutch and international speakers shared their thoughts on the development of the monograph in the HSS. One of the main themes of the day revolved around the question whether the HSS would follow the path of STM, where journals and digital articles are the dominant format. Will the book still be a valuable format for the dissemination of scholarship in the future, especially in an online environment?
According to Abram de Swaan, who reads his lecture from a Kindle, the book remains a sacral object. Not only in its physical form, but also in a digital format the content of a book consists of the material remains of its writers thoughts. De Swaan sees no reason why the book would disappear, it will find many other vehicles for the transportation of its content (eReaders, iPods, Mobile Phones) and will always find its own niche. According to De Swaan the question is not what will be published but who will publish it? De Swaan challenges the monopoly of the big commercial publishers, who have become obstacles to the dissemination of the scholarly publication, especially in HSS. We need to go back to the small publishing firm and personalized relationships between authors and publishers as a marker for the quality of the imprint and a protector of the quality of the content.
Mariët Westermann says the crisis of scholarly monographs hit the art history field very hard. The field got squeezed by publishers and by a regime of copyright for pictures and image use (accompanied by very high prices). These are unique problems in the area of visual arts book production. She argues that art history needs hybrid models and a move to digital publishing to survive. However, print is still valued, the codex still has a lot of prestige and it remains a handy format. It is also seen as the preferred tool for the production of scholarship and its fixed form functions well to build new work upon. Next to that art history is deeply comparative and depended on several sources and images which we can compare all at once, for which books are more fitting than a screen. Finally, as a community, art historians remain certain that the print form is the best way to present images (more beautiful, better visuality).While acknowledging the value of the print form of the art book, Westermann says there are also reasons to embrace the digital. Most importantly, the economics of the illustrated printed book are no longer sustainable. This leads Westermann to conclude that print will survive but a monographic offshoot online will become art histories next race horse.
According to John Thompson we need to understand the social context in which books are produced. The broader social context in the field of academic monograph publishing is the research process and publication is thus part of the cultural economy of scholarly research. In this respect Thompson notes that the key problems are economic and cultural rather than technical. Some forms of content lend themselves better to online delivery and distribution than others. This is also field specific. We thus need to know more about the role of books in the cultural economy of research. The future of the book is linked to broader changes in the academy and scholarly communication.
Philip Carpenter questions the assumption that what happens first in STM will happen in due course in HSS and that STM will set the calendar for scholarly communication as a whole. As he states, some parts of HSS behave more than STM than others, and some parts of HSS also rely more on articles. However, the monograph remains the gold standard in HSS and is indispensable for career advancement. Will electronic publishing then offer a solution for the crisis of the monograph? Carpenter doubts that, for at the moment libraries cannot afford both print and digital publications and print is still very personal: print is to read and electronic is to discover and browse. It is a supplement and not a substitute. Although Carpenter foresees vastly more content will be available online, whether electronic will become primary strongly depends on the kinds of books and the subject area.
Summarizing one can say that the conclusions from the different speakers at the conference all came down to the fact that it is hard to compare the development of STM with the HSS. Not all publishing models are adaptable from STM to HSS and you can not simply compare books with articles and their digital development. The book will remain important in the HSS although it will also find a way to adapt to the digital environment. Printed books will probably for a long time coexist with electronic book content. Scholarly practices are changing however, publishing is a social process and scholarship is also in a development. As David Prescott from Blackwell said: the customers will eventually tell you what they want, they will decide on the format.