Can the University Press Be Saved From Itself?

Two_Arabs_Reading_in_a_Courtyard

Painting by Rudolf Ernst via Wikimedia Commons.

I’ve been following an online discussion about the relevance and sustainability of university presses (here and here) and whether or not there’s a future for publishers of “books that no one needs to use or wants to read.” Opinions expressed by those laboring within the UP community cite shrinking budgets, the corporatization of the academy, niche markets, and the disruptive onslaught of the Digital Revolution as the leading threats to the traditional UP publishing model. Charles Watkins, director of Purdue University Press, described a more nuanced problem and proffered a solution:

Many university presses, especially smaller ones, did not do themselves a service by attempting to fly beneath the radar at their institutions … . Focusing just on academic disciplines and not serving their university community was not a good strategy. If a university press is subsidized by its parent institution, it should expect to give something tangible back. That can range from explicity aligning the publishing list with the institution’s disciplinary strengths to providing additional publishing services outside the press’s imprint.

Very diplomatic, but he’s still just dancing around the real issue. In a post at a copyeditors’ virtual water cooler, Tammy Ditmore (a professional editor with considerable academic press experience) pointed out the obvious: The king has no clothes!

What [Watkins] doesn’t mention is how the pressure on academics to publish monographs remains as high as ever. Tenure and promotion committees rarely acknowledge changing times, and many give little weight to anything other than scholarly mongraphs published by the top UPs. … So universities pressure their faculty to create books that no one will read, which puts pressure on libraries to buy books that no one will read, which puts pressure on universities to support UPs to create books that no one will read. It seems like a vicious and pointless cycle that very often does NOT contribute to informed dialogue, which is ostensibly the role of academic publishing.

It’s that old “publish or perish” rubric. In the pursuit of tenure, academic aspirants are required to crank out esoteric monographs that no one outside a small circle of specialists will ever consult. It is a rite of passage that those who came of age with Mr. Chips are loathe to surrender: Academics writing to impress other academics in an infinitesimal echo chamber, an exclusive club that disdains anything so unseemly as social media or publishing well-researched, interesting nonfiction aimed at the unwashed masses.

A Broader Mission

In our extended conversation, Ditmore elaborated,

In the nonacademic world, those niche markets get taken care of through self-publishing or tiny niche publishers or even through blogs and electronic discussion lists. Why do the specialized academic niches need to be subsidized so they can produce expensive, hardbound volumes that few people will want to buy? Especially when about three-quarters of  [the content of] those expensive, hardbound books is re-hashing all the prior research on an issue to prove the author has read everything else written on the topic, and one-quarter of the book attempts to advance an argument by one turn of the screw?

Why indeed. Times do change, and the university press must change with them. Publishing scholarly monographs has long been the university press’s raison d’être, but what happens when the dead-tree monograph becomes an anachronism—a quaint artifact of the pre-digital world? Just as it no longer makes sense for the doctoral curriculum to be focused solely on preparing PhD candidates for nonexistent tenure-track teaching positions, an overemphasis on the publication of pricey, small-run, hardbound doorstops is unrealistic and misguided.

Here’s a thought: Why not publish books people want to read?

I certainly won’t gainsay the importance of the monograph to the scholar’s professional development, but there’s no reason for it to be a physical volume, or the primary source of the university press’s income. Digital technologies render the publication and distribution of this kind of specialized research and analysis a relatively inexpensive process. Further, open-access, cross-platform publishing encourages scholarly collaboration and ensures that such data will be searchable. Both of these factors promise to boost usage, but even such expanded utility will not generate the revenue stream necessary to keep a university press afloat.

I agree with Watkins’s contention that UPs need to rethink their mandate, but he’s being entirely too timid. I would recommend broadening his parochial concept of “serving their university community … [through] aligning the publishing list with the institution’s disciplinary strengths [and] providing additional publishing services outside the press’s imprint” to a more expansive mission statement—something along the lines of “servicing an eager and receptive global market by producing books its constituents want to buy and read.”

The UP as Trade Publisher

There are more college-educated readers in the population today than ever before, so why not tap this huge potential market? Rather than being content with churning out yet another scholarly monograph on global economics (zzzzzz…), wouldn’t it be more fiscally responsible and creatively rewarding to have a book like Thomas Picketty’s Capital in the Twenty-First Century (a New York Times bestseller) prominently featured on your university press’s website and Facebook page as well?

The university press should be a robust and functional organ in a multifaceted publishing ecosystem, not an insular, adamantine ward of the academy. Remember those hulking console stereos from the ’60s? Oh, they were adequate—if all you wanted to listen to was Mantovani. But as consumers became more sophisticated audiophiles, they replaced those beasts with component systems that enabled the user to mix and match complementary elements to achieve the sound that soothed their soul. The university press needs to adopt that kind of creative flexibility.

Commercially viable titles would help subsidize pure scholarship while building the professor-cum-author’s (and the press’s, and the university’s) cred. We need not throw the baby out with the bathwater—digital monographs (scholarly journals, too, for that matter) can peaceably coexist with stellar trade nonfiction in the university press’s catalog. Generating income to underwrite a sustainable business model that foots the bill for orthodox scholarship while entertaining and enlightening the public-at-large with worthy trade nonfiction sounds like a win-win proposition to me.

Turning Scholars Into Storytellers

But there’s a catch: Producing compelling nonfiction calls for authors who can write well, ably assisted by editors who know what they’re about. The first element in the equation is problematic; PhD programs are not designed to produce skillful communicators. That really needs to change, and I believe it will.

The unvarnished truth is that a PhD sheepskin is no longer a ticket to a cushy tenured faculty berth, so the nature of scholarly exposition must also evolve. An increasing number of universities are retooling their curricula to prepare doctoral candidates for alternative careers in the Real World, where strong communication skills are critical—and this applies to both the arts and the sciences.

And what about the other half of the equation? University presses should be hiring rather than firing editors. Without good editors, the quality of the books they produce will suffer. It’s as simple as that. If you don’t believe me, ask any bestselling author.

If they can’t justify the cost of keeping a full complement of top-flight editors on staff, university presses should cultivate a stable of qualified freelancers. And they shouldn’t cheap out—unpaid grad students, peer reviewers, beta readers, and crowdsourced editing just won’t do. Professional editing is simply a sound business investment. As Tom Wolfe reminded us in The Right Stuff, “No bucks, no Buck Rogers.”

Demoting and digitizing the monograph, turning scholars into masterful storytellers, adding that professional editorial polish, and aggressively marketing the product to a general audience may not single-handedly rescue the university press from oblivion, but it sure can’t hurt.

the DW-P

Aden Nichols is an independent editor and writer. He is available for print and digital projects: books (academic, narrative/creative nonfiction, memoir, speculative/alternate history, etc.), websites/social media, and business communications. Visit his website (www.LittleFireEditorial.com) or email him at: Aden@LittleFireEditorial.com.

Can History Be True?

“Time dissipates to shining ether the solid angularity of facts.” – Ralph Waldo Emerson

Napoleon a Dit“What is history but a fable agreed upon?” This pithy maxim is generally credited to Napoleon Bonaparte, a man who had plenty of experience manipulating the historical record. Ironically, I have not been able to satisfactorily link this quotation directly to the Little Corporal—the earliest reference I can find is Ralph Waldo Emerson citing it in his famous essay, “History” (1837).

And therein lies the rub: This dubious attribution has been repeated often enough for nearly two centuries to gain credence (a Google search returned 1,140,000 hits). And as repetition leads to consensus, consensus rationalizes validation. All the more so in the Information Age, in which an anonymous “editor” can submit material to Wikipedia, which (universal warnings notwithstanding) has become the go-to reference for Everyman. So hearsay becomes fact by default. Never mind that even if such a declaration was traceable to its original source, its meaning is contingent upon its context.

History is a malleable commodity, indeed. So much for Ranke’s objective historicism!

History is more than a series of data points

Still, the thrust of this aphorism should not be dismissed out of hand. Despite the well-meaning efforts of cliometricians and practitioners of the new social history to infuse the study of the past with the scientific certitude of Big Data and sociological methodology, history obstinately refuses to be reduced to mathematical formulæ and statistical tabulations. “The operations of life, whether private or publick admit no such laws,” counseled Samuel Johnson. “The caprices of voluntary agents laugh at calculation.”

Historical evidence takes many forms: from intimate personal correspondence to authoritative institutional documents; from anecdotal tribal traditions to carefully collected and curated oral histories; from graphic images on hillsides, standing stones, cave walls, illuminated manuscripts, and websites to sound recordings on a variety of media; and of course, there are those three-dimensional artifacts… . Each with its own hidden agenda. Collectively this body of evidence is capable of yielding some understanding of the essence of an individual subject or group at a specific moment in time, but none of its component parts are value-neutral.

The relativist would say that every scrap of evidence collected by even the most fastidious historian, regardless of provenance, is subject to interpretation—the highly subjective filter of human agency. If that is so, history will always be more art than science, a unique species of literature, or as Emerson framed it, “There is properly no history; only biography.” Whatever your philosophy, it’s hard to argue with E. H. Carr’s commonsense pronouncement: “The function of the historian is neither to love the past nor to emancipate himself from the past, but to master and understand it as the key to the understanding of the present.” The writing of history is truly an interdisciplinary form of composition.

Putting the “human” in humanities

History is the record of an event or events instigated, experienced, related, and recorded by people. Some were lettered, others illiterate; some were eyewitnesses, others had their backs turned at the crucial moment; some were well-intentioned reporters, while others were just looking for a free beer. No social forces—be they economic, political, religious, technological, ideological, or military—can exist without the involvement of human beings; flesh and blood, gristle and bone. And the relationship is a symbiotic one: Real people, from serf to lord, are the fulcrum upon which these inanimate forces exert their powerful influence and vice-versa.

Commenting on the profound value of Sir Walter Scott’s historical novels, Thomas Carlyle reminded us, “the bygone ages of the world were actually filled by living men, not by protocols, state-papers, controversies and abstractions of men. Not abstractions were they, not diagrams and theorems; but men, in buff or other coats and breeches, with colour in their cheeks, with passions in their stomach, and the idioms, features and vitalities of very men.” (I trust we can forgive Carlyle his quaint chauvinism—we are all a product of our times.)

But academic history is presumed to be nonfiction (even if it falls within the genre of creative, or narrative, nonfiction), so to maintain a sense of verisimiltude it must be predicated on thorough research and data collection in as many of the evidentiary fields as possible. Clio (whom Herbert Butterfield affectionately called “that old reprobate”) must be courted with deference and respect. Yet when the research phase is complete, these cumulative facts reveal nothing in and of themselves; the past is unconcerned with the present.

A historian must weigh every word, every fragmentary artifact, and paint a convincing portrait of her subject based on the subjective selection, arrangement, and interpretation of these data. Any randomly chosen group of impeccably credentialed, conscientious scholars can analyze an identical assemblage of primary data and produce wildly divergent readings of the same historical “truth.” None are necessarily right or wrong—they just reflect different points of view, as in Kurosawa’s Rashomon. The problem is articulately expessed by comedian Steven Wright when he deadpans, “How do you know if it’s bad jazz?”

This is not meant to be a deconstuctionist diatribe; rather, I am suggesting that as historians, we belong to an exclusive club. We are the progeny of the bards and the shanachie—keepers of the flame. We are the storytellers…

the DW-P

Aden Nichols is an independent editor and writer. He is available for print and digital projects: books (academic, narrative/creative nonfiction, memoir, speculative/alternate history, etc.), websites/social media, and business communications. Visit his website (www.LittleFireEditorial.com) or email him at: Aden@LittleFireEditorial.com.

Technology & Culture Update 5/20/13

Down Survey MapEthnic cleansing, ca. 1653: Last week we took a peek at the emerging discipline of GIS, and there’s more cool map-related news to report today. Following his conquest of Ireland, Oliver Cromwell doled out confiscated land to his soldiers in lieu of pay and transported the hapless Irish, either into slavery in distant lands or banishment to the barrens of Connacht (those who refused to go quietly were summarily executed). The story produces haunting echoes of Hitler’s landgrab and pogroms.

Digital humanities scholars at Trinity College Dublin have now assembled and digitized an atlas of remarkably accurate survey maps drafted by Cromwell’s minions (called the “Down Survey”) and georeferenced them with 19th-century Ordnance Survey maps, Google Maps, and satellite imagery. Accurate down to the parish level, the maps enable historians to identify the original owners of the purloined lands (no reparations are anticipated…). Needless to say, this amazing digital repository has proven a boon to researchers, genealogists, and students of Irish history—and the maps are beautiful works of art in their own right.

Dangerous obsessions: In The Lost City of Z, journalist David Grann plumbs the depths of the Brazilian Amazon jungle following in the wake of Percy Fawcett’s final—and fatal—1925 expedition to locate the storied city of El Dorado, the “City of Gold” (also know as Ciudad Blanca, the White City). Grann concludes that there is indeed evidence of such an ancient citadel (many, actually, according to anthropologist Michael Heckenberger) but the tantalizing theory has yet to be validated. Armed with an innovative digital mapping technology called LiDAR, cinematographer Stephen Elkins believes he’s struck paydirt—but in Honduras rather than Brazil.

LiDAR uses laser pulses to map terrain, enabling it to “see” through the triple canopy jungle and construct a 3D digital image of the elusive topography. Working over a 60-square-mile patch of jungle, engineers of the National Science Foundation (contracted by Elkins to perform the aerial data collection) found evidence of man-made structures (one doesn’t normally see straight lines in nature). But the jungle may well have swallowed a good many ancient cities and towns—could this really be the famed Ciudad Blanca? Archeologists scoff while Elkins prepares to head into the bush on foot to find out…

Geo-economics lesson: Though perhaps not imbued with that Indiana Jones cachet, another GIS project worthy of your consideration is an interactive map of global trade published on the Smithsonian’s website. “Interactive: The 50 Largest Ports in the World” is a really interesting example of how the combination of maps and data can be combined to relate a compelling story. Factoid: Six of the 10 busiest ports in the world are located on China’s mainland coast.

Grammar on the brain: According to a study performed by neuroscientists at the University of Oregon, our brains are hardwired to detect—and correct—grammar errors without our conscious intervention. It’s kind of like having a spell-check chip embedded in your head. Pretty cool, huh? The study, which was conducted using electroencephalography, included native English-speaking subjects between the ages of 18 and 30. Sounds intriguing, but the article didn’t mention anything at all about the subjects—their socioeconomic status or educational level, for example. I’ve got to wonder whether the amount of prior education in language skills isn’t a very critical factor here. Further, even with substantial grounding in the fundamentals, I’ve seen some atrocious writing produced by folks with graduate-level educations, so how is it these scholars’ brains aren’t autocorrecting as this study indicates they should?

While this study may establish that your brain parses grammar and syntactic data so quickly that it appears to be unconscious or intuitive, I would think the capability to perform this process would be contingent on how well you know the grammar and syntax rules to begin with. Your brain has to have that database to draw on. As a paratrooper, I was drilled (and drilled, and drilled) on how to react in the event of a malfunction; so well-drilled, in fact, that the response seemed automatic. It wasn’t, of course. Without that prior training, I’d have been in a world of hurt.

Wikipedia editing in real time: And here’s one more installment of visualization coolness for you—if you’ve ever wondered who’s doing all that crowd-sourced editing for Wikipedia, now you can see it happening geographically in real time. The site developers explain, “When an unregistered user edits Wikipedia, he or she is identified by his or her IP address. These IP addresses are translated to users’ approximate geographic location.” Only 15 percent of the edits come from unregistered users, but it’s still an amazing process to watch unfolding before your very eyes.

Dan Brown, man of letters: This lampoon of incredibly wealthy, renowned fiction scribe Dan Brown’s latest sure-to-be-best-seller will have you rolling on your highly polished antique heartwood pine floor, with the lemony scent of the polish in your nostrils, and snorting like a coke fiend who just won the lottery…

Spaced out: Let’s wrap up this week’s installment with a tribute to that bona fide space cowboy, Canadian astronaut and cosmic troubadour, Chris Hadfield. In case you’re not one of the 14 million people who’ve viewed the self-produced video of Chris crooning “Space Oddity” in orbit, I’ve posted it here:

You’re welcome. That’s one small step for Ziggy…

It is truly a memorable milestone in the history of rock, but we must also recall that just last summer, Mark Kelly, commander of the International Space Station and husband of Gabrielle Giffords, was beamed (from space) onto the jumbotron at a U2 concert to introduce the song “Beautiful Day” quipping, “Tell my wife I love her very much, she knows.” Could this have possibly provided Chris with inspiration? I don’t think he should quit his day job, but it was pretty cool. Nicely done, Commander Hadfield!

the DW-P

Aden Nichols is an independent editor and writer. He is available for print and digital projects: books (academic, narrative/creative nonfiction, memoir, speculative/alternate history, etc.), websites/social media, and business communications. Visit his website (www.LittleFireEditorial.com) or email him at: Aden@LittleFireEditorial.com.

Technology & Culture Update 5/10/13

coffee plantCoffee redux: As previously noted, NPR recently devoted an entire week to a special report on the many aspects of coffee culture. This week it’s Maria Popova’s turn to sing the praises (and dis the dark side) of that most social of beverages in her precocious Brain Pickings blog. In her wonderfully eclectic style, Popova profiles Mark Pendergrast’s sweeping history and anthropological study of coffee, Uncommon Grounds. As usual, her text is generously sprinkled with breadcrumb links that suck you down the rabbit hole and into related essays, all of which are equally compelling. Hopefully, once you’ve been enticed by this preview, you’ll be moved to seek out a copy of Uncommon Grounds, brew up some joe and enjoy…

Thanks to Google Earth, we’ve all become familiar with amazing imaging of our built environment from various altitudes and perspectives; now even men can find their way without asking for directions! A joint effort undertaken by TIME, Google, the U.S. Geological Survey, and NASA, Timelapse (as it is called) raises the bar exponentially. See for yourself:

The project employs still satellite photos taken from 1984 to 2012 in flip-book style animation sequences. The scenes dramatically document the effects of human activity on the Little Blue Marble. From the explosion of development in Las Vegas (and the concomitant draining of nearby Lake Mead) to the rape of the Amazon rainforest and the travesty that is mountaintop-removal mining, this empirical evidence of our stunning lack of stewardship will take your breath away. On the positive side of the ledger, it’s interesting to see the results of irrigation projects in Saudi Arabia. Bonus: use the “Explore the World” dialog box to view the time-lapse changes for any location!

Our geospatial relationship to the planet constitutes the very heart of the geographic information systems (GIS) discipline. GIS enables us to visualize, analyze, and interpret data to identify trends and patterns. It’s also very good at putting historical events in context. Evolving tools, such as Neatline (an app designed by the University of Virginia Scholars’ Lab), facilitate the use of GIS by non-programmers. Take a stroll through the Neatline demo and prepare yourself to be impressed!

Archeology News reported on this emerging technology as well, with specific reference to how it can be employed to make history more accessible, using Mapping the Jewish Communities of the Byzantine Empire as a case study.

If you’re interested in getting your feet wet, there’s plenty of material to work with, and more becoming available every day. For example, the British Library just announced the digital open-access debut of its collection of incredibly detailed Ordnance Surveryors’ Drawings (OSDs), executed between 1789 and 1840. Want more? Click through to Old Maps Online. This site serves as a portal and search engine for the online collections of various libraries and research institutions (of which there are nineteen currently participating). The David Rumsey Map Collection Database and Blog is another great resource. This leviathan sports 38,000 historical maps and related images, and will soon be partnering with the Digital Public Library of America (we’ve mentioned the wondrous DPLA here, here, and here).

And switching gears, I have to post this entertaining video, “Vigilante Copy Editor” (factoid: AP styles “copy editor” as two words, CMOS prefers closing it up). Lynne Truss (of Eat, Shoots & Leaves fame) would be proud…

Have a fantastic weekend!

the DW-P

Aden Nichols is an independent editor and writer. He is available for print and digital projects: books (academic, narrative/creative nonfiction, memoir, speculative/alternate history, etc.), websites/social media, and business communications. Visit his website (www.LittleFireEditorial.com) or email him at: Aden@LittleFireEditorial.com.

Technology & Culture Update 5/3/13

nat'l bike month

The science of safety: May is National Bike month (loads of related activities here) and we should all be spending more time on our bikes. Cycling is good for your body, mind and spirit, it’s easier on your wallet than driving and it’s a blessing for the environment (the trees will thank you!). Really, there’s no down side. Some folks worry about getting hit by a car. Don’t. Believe it or not, you are 15 times more likely to die while riding in a car than you are while riding on your bike. This may seem counterintuitive, but it’s true. Our irrational fear is predicated on cognitive biasIn this brief presentation from Bike Summit 2013, Tom Bowden (chairman of Bike Virginia and vice president of the Virginia Bicycling Federation) cleverly explains this phenomenon.

To catch a thief: And while we’re on the subject of two-wheelin’, KALW radio (San Francisco NPR affiliate) produced a great story about using social media to track down stolen bikes. There’s also an engaging read in the February issue of Outside magazine profiling one man’s obsessive quest to craft the perfect sting operation to nail bike thieves. Interestingly, the level of law enforcement cooperation hinges on how many cyclists there are in the local precinct: “Departments that can muster a peloton, like those in San Francisco, Portland, and Houston, are generally more proactive.” The bottom line is that you should be proactive, too; you can increase the odds of seeing your lost bike again by keeping a file with your bike’s serial number and lots of photos, and blasting out info relating to your stolen bike all over the cycling forums. Cyclists are a tight community; use crowdsourcing to your advantage! It doesn’t hurt to put your name on a piece of paper, laminate it and stuff it into your seat tube. There will be no argument that this is your bike!

From the Velolinguistics Dept.: In a recent tweet, noted lexicographer Peter Sokolowski revealed that he is not a devoted cyclist:

“How unhip am I? I used to think that ‘fixie’ meant a fixer-upper. A junk bike you won’t care if stolen.”

Personally, I think the beauty of the ‘net is that you can so easily discover how little you know about so many things—and broadcast this revelation to the entire planet with the push of a button.

Alexis Madgrigal knows what a fixie is; in fact, he employs it as a metaphor in his current blog post in The Atlantic: “Online Media is a Fixie: Simple, Low-Maintenance, Fun, and Dangerous.” He offers a pretty technical profile of just what a fixie is, and suggests an analogy with online reportage. Read the comments following Madrigal’s testimonial to his own hipness; they are much more on-point (and entertaining!).

E-book sales are on the rise and the e-publishing titans are duking it out in an attempt to establish proprietary models designed to lock authors and readers into a lucrative (for the publisher) gated community. But standards are elusive, and one developer is determined to wrest the self-publishing arena from the clutches of Apple and Amazon. Called “FuturePress” (squeezed into one word, cute), the open-source project is the brainchild of the UC Berkeley School of Information (where else?). According to the website, “FuturePress aims to free books from the prisons of current proprietary formats.” The idea is to build an API based on HTML5, enabling an e-book to be read on any device. “I should be able to read a book regardless of what type of device or application I want to use,” defiantly asserted Jake Hartnell, product manager for FuturePress. “It’s like that for things like music and video! But not ebooks. 🙁 ” It’s a kick-ass concept, but an unfortunate choice of moniker (and they have no logo—has no one told them about “branding”?). It should come as no surprise that the name “Future Press” has long since been nabbed by any number of commercial outfits. So type “futurepress” into a search engine and see what comes up. Just sayin’…

Pet peeves of the word-nerd crowd: According to The Atlantic, “definitely” is the latest overused buzzword. Over at the Chronicle of Higher Education, Ben Yagoda casts his vote for “literally.” Yes, some of the greats of belles-lettres have fallen prey to this tick, but that doesn’t make it correct, or even acceptable (it just makes them human). I doubt that I’ll be giving too much away to admit that both of these linguistic abuses are like fingernails on a blackboard to me. I failed high school biology because my teacher, Mr. Shelsky, had a habit of prefacing every statement with, “Strangely enough …” and concluding his diatribes with a (no doubt) trenchant observation beginning, “Irregardless, ….” It got to the point that everything else he said was just white noise punctuated by those annoying exclamations. Entranced, I was reduced to a drooling zombie state in which I mindlessly counted how many times he uttered these expressions and recorded the totals on my Pee-Chee notebook. Little wonder that I couldn’t recall much about the Periodic Table of Elements.

Publishing and paywalls: The revered publication, American Heritage, is the latest in a long line of periodicals struggling with the digital revolution. Having suspended publication last fall, the publishers claim to be restructuring the book as an education-oriented digital history offering (behind a paywall); they’re hoping the “educational” cachet will prove to be a viable sales strategy. In its new incarnation, the publication will be available in print and digital formats designed to complement the company’s nonprofit project, “Education, A Transformative System for Teaching American History and English Language Arts.” With so many innovative open-source alternatives already available or coming online now (the DPLA, which I discussed a couple of weeks ago, the University of Houston’s impressive Digital History website and the various educational initiatives produced by George Mason University’s Rosenzweig Center for History and New Media, to name a few), it’s difficult to see how a for-profit venture is going to keep its head above water.

Digital Humanities 101: The aforementioned efforts all fall under the umbrella of the “digital humanities.” If you’re even the slightest bit curious about this fascinating movement, there are many resources available to acquaint you with the basics. Defining the Digital Humanities: A Bibliography is a great place to begin your journey. A Companion to Digital Humanities is an open-access textbook on the subject (and a very accessible read), while “A Guide to Digital Humanities” (by Northwestern University) is another well thought-out introduction to the field. This should be more than enough to whet your appetite; I’ll revisit this subject frequently.

CERNHappy birthday, Web! It’s hard to believe, but the World Wide Web is only 20 years old. British physicist Tim Berners-Lee developed the idea of creating an information network, and the technology that made it possible was made freely available to all on April 30, 1993. The first website (for CERN, a nuclear research organization) wasn’t much to look at, but Gutenberg’s initial efforts were pretty crude, too. In celebration of two decades of open-access information exchange, CERN has resurrected its original website. This technology has profoundly changed information sharing—how we interact, how we tell our story—in fundamental ways. What will the third decade bring?

the DW-P

Aden Nichols is an independent editor and writer. He is available for print and digital projects: books (academic, narrative/creative nonfiction, memoir, speculative/alternate history, etc.), websites/social media, and business communications. Visit his website (www.LittleFireEditorial.com) or email him at: Aden@LittleFireEditorial.com.

Technology & Culture Update 4/19/13

Keep-calm-and-carry-on-scanBefore I get into the update, I would like to offer my heartfelt condolences to the families of the victims of the tragedies in Boston and West, Texas. You are all in my prayers.

The horrific incident at the Boston Marathon quite naturally put the gala opening ceremonies of the Digital Public Library of America on hold (see earlier post), as the organization is physically located in Boston. But the DPLA opened its digital doors at noon yesterday, right on schedule.

And on the other end of the spectrum, I regret to report that the US House of Representatives passed the Cyber Intelligence Sharing and Protection Act (CISPA) yesterday. This draconian measure is aimed at increasing governmental curtailment of civil liberties in the name of “security,” a là Department of Homeland Security.

US_Department_of_Homeland_Security_Seal.svgOne politician, Mike McCaul (R-Texas), actually linked CISPA to the terrorist attack: “Recent events in Boston demonstrate that we have to come together as Republicans and Democrats to get this done. In the case of Boston there were real bombs. In this case, they are digital bombs.” Then he issued a dire warning: “These digital bombs are on their way.” Fear is a powerful motivator and fomenting paranoia is a disgusting (but time-honored) political tactic. Hitler and his cronies found it to be very useful in terrifying and pacifying the German people: Only the apparatus of the state security services can protect you. Trust us.

Fortunately for those who love freedom, the virtual genie is out of the bottle and no bureaucratic cabal can put it back. The free flow of information is on the march — knowledge is power. Here’s just a taste of the many open access initiatives that are making news this week:

Let’s start with the DPLA: This ambitious project will make voluminous assets housed in libraries, archival repositories, and museums freely available to the public-at-large. Thus far, the DPLA has partnered with half a dozen state and regional digital libraries, many university libraries, and large cultural heritage institutions, including the Smithsonian Institution and the National Archives and Records Administration.

In addition to its own homegrown search tools, the DPLA can be navigated with apps crafted by outside developers, such as Harvard Library Innovation Lab’s “Stacklife DPLA.” This tool gives users access to a variety of digital collections, including the Biodiversity Heritage Library, the HathiTrust, and Internet Archive’s Open Library. Let the research begin!

Internet Archive has also teamed with JSTOR to make 450,000 articles from the JSTOR Early Journal Content collection freely available. The wide-ranging interdisciplinary offerings cover the humanities, economics, politics, and the STEM fields dating from before 1923 in the US and 1870 elsewhere. The JSTOR Data for Research site offers full-text OCR as well as article and title-level metadata to facilitate text mining and analysis.

The Association of College Research Libraries (ACRL) announced that it has granted digital manumission to the full archive of its scholarly research journal, College & Research Libraries (C&RL). All issues from the journal’s origin in 1939 through the current issue are now available online for free!

Porträtt, karikatyr, from Skoklosters slott museum

Porträtt, karikatyr, from Skoklosters slott museum

In what is being termed the “Open Image Archive” project, LSH (a national Swedish triumvirate comprising The Royal Armoury, Skokloster Castle, and the Hallwyl Museum) is endeavoring to make its entire holdings openly available online. Of the 40,000 images, about a third have been scanned in high resolution.

So you see, we have much to be grateful for! Rather than falling prey to the fearmongers, let’s celebrate our unalienable right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness — and the open exchange of ideas that makes it possible.

the DW-P

Aden Nichols is an independent editor and writer. He is available for print & digital projects: books (academic, narrative/creative nonfiction, memoir, speculative/alternate history, etc.), websites/social media, and business communications. Visit his website (www.LittleFireEditorial.com) or email him at: Aden@LittleFireEditorial.com.

Technology & Culture Update 4/12/13

This woman is wearing a bike helmet. Yes she is.

This woman is wearing a bike helmet.
Yes she is.

Bike commuters know they should wear a helmet, but hey, the dang things give you “helmet hair” for the rest of the day! That problem led two Swedish design grad students to put on their thinking caps. The result was the Invisible Bicycle Helmet. Unlike the king’s new clothes, the helmet’s really there — trust me. Think of it as an airbag for your head; it deploys when you need it. Do yourself a favor and watch this short documentary video. After graduation, the co-designers went into business to produce their innovative design commercially. They proudly proclaim: “We may be a small company, but we think big and we aim high. Delusions of grandeur are exactly what it takes!” Far be it from me to gainsay them. Diana Eng, watch out!

Growing pains… When a Canadian professor encouraged the 1,900 students in his psychology survey course to edit relevant Wikipedia articles as a voluntary assignment, they did — and all hell broke loose. The unexpected volume of edits made the open-source encyclopedia’s volunteer editors think they were the target of some sort of rogue troll. How could they possibly vet this tsunami of new data? Perhaps social media doesn’t always lend itself to educational applications. If this episode caused so much consternation, what will happen when the MOOCs attack?

PavegenWalkin’ on sunshine: After a successful initial trial during the London Olympics, the power-generating Pavegen tiles are now being installed in walkways all over the globe. Every time a foot depresses a tile, kinetic energy is harvested and converted into electrical power. Pavegen may not be the ultimate answer to our insatiable demand for more electricity, but it’s a step in the right direction.

Crowd-sourced proofreading: As you undoubtedly know, Project Gutenberg is an open-access initiative dedicated to the digitization of books for free distribution. The original tomes are scanned and converted into e-books for enhanced legibility, but OCR isn’t perfect, and all those pages need to be proofed by human eyes. As of two days ago, 100,000 volunteers from around the world have contributed to this noble effort. Project Gutenberg calls this herculean task “distributed proofreading,” and if you’d like to get involved, you can read more about it and sign up here.

Photographic archives are also making their way to the interwebs. The George Eastman House, “the world’s oldest museum dedicated to photography,” is teaming up with the Google Art Project to make hi-res sccans of its collections available online. The initial offering comprises 50 photographs from the 1840s to the late 1900s; just a taste of the digital goodness to come.

The Tribeca Film Festival opens on April 17. An evangelist of new media (check out the TFF Spotify Playlist), the festival is showcasing a six-second streaming video category this year that’s open to all comers. Yes, I said six-second. Aspiring filmmakers use the Vine app and their smart phones to plant cinematic seeds. It’s kind of like video tweets. Indeed, twitter noted the similarity as well, and snapped up the start-up posthaste. Robert De Niro, co-founder of TFF, sees the six-second film competition as an artistically challenging exercise rather than a stunt: “Six seconds of beginning, middle and end. … you can tell a whole story in six seconds.” In fact, in order to be considered for the competition, you have to tell a complete story. It took you longer to read this blurb…

Google announced that it will be doing its part to help keep Austin weird by making the progressive Texas city the second testbed for its uber-fast Google Fiber Internet service. The project debuted in Kansas City, but Austin — home to the celebrated South by Southwest technology and culture festival — seems a more obvious choice for such a high-tech venture. So just how fast is Google Fiber? The company claims the new service will be about 100 times faster than conventional broadband. Do we really need the speed? “Need” is such a subjective word, don’t you think? Yes and yes.

the DW-P

Aden Nichols is an independent editor and writer. He is available for print and digital projects: books (academic, narrative/creative nonfiction, memoir, speculative/alternate history, etc.), websites/social media, and business communications. Visit his website (www.LittleFireEditorial.com) or email him at: Aden@LittleFireEditorial.com.

Technology & Culture Update 4/5/13

Image from the Book of KellsTrinity College Dublin recently posted individual hi-def images of every page (all 667 of ’em) of the justly famous illuminated manuscript known as the Book of KellsWhat a wondrous orgy of color, calligraphy and ornamental design! The circa eighth-century masterpiece recently served as the inspiration for the highly acclaimed animated film, The Secret of Kells, which was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Animated Feature in 2010. This is an outstanding example of what can be accomplished when technology influences culture in a good way.

Like the country itself, our language is seasoned with the polyglot contributions of an array of cultures. And that doesn’t even include the home-grown slang that is uniquely American. So how do you find the perfect word when you’re nowhere near your reference shelf or computer? Thesaurus Rex for the iOS to the rescue! More than a static e-book, T-Rex is an iPhone app that engages the power of digital technology to help you refine your searches. According to its developers’ marketing hyperbole, “Thesaurus Rex has revolutionized that ‘list of synonyms’ into a dynamic experience that sorts and filters words by their senses, relevance, complexity, and length.” I plan to give it a test drive; I welcome every tool that helps me write better.

As the academy struggles with the changing definitions of scholarly publishing in a digital world, Nature magazine offers a special issue devoted exclusively to the subject. Not surprisingly, the Open Access movement is an overarching theme: from OA’s influence on publishing costs and copyright issues to the explosion of shady operators usuing bogus journals to fleece unwitting scholars. There’s also a piece about the awesome Digital Public Library of America (DPLA) initiative — about which more below.

The DPLA is envisioned to be “an open, distributed network of comprehensive online resources that would draw on the nation’s living heritage from libraries, universities, archives, and museums in order to educate, inform, and empower everyone in the current and future generations.” Think of it as the great Library of Alexandria rising Phoenix-like from its own ashes. You can read an excellent backgrounder on the project here.

And I’ll take this opportunity to note that my friend and colleague Dan Cohen has been tapped to take the helm as the inaugural executive director of the DPLA, so the program’s in very good hands. Dan was instrumental in the development of the Roy Rosenzweig Center for History and New Media (CHNM) at George Mason University, which serves as a polestar of the digital humanities movement. There’s already lots of interesting stuff at the DPLA website (so go have a look!), but the official launch is scheduled for April 18. This is history in the making, kidz — the DPLA will be the virtual house that we built.

Hands-free books? Publishing pundit Nathan Bransford philosophizes about how Google’s “Project Glass” might affect our reading habits. However, the cutting-edge specs are already being cloned in China, and an American firm (Vergence Labs) is offering its own iteration of the technology under the moniker of “Epiphany Eyewear.” Vergence claims its geeky-looking frames are a match for Google’s “smart glasses.” And the beat goes on…

book spine poetryIn celebration of National Poetry Month — you knew it was National Poetry Month, right? — we’d like to draw your attention to a couple of unique genres of that literary medium. The first involves creating poetry by stacking up books (the physical, dead-tree kind) and reading the titles as verse. It’s all the rage on Pinterest and Tumblr. Go ahead, give it a try! In a somewhat higher-tech (though equally arbitrary) approach, techno-geeksters Sampsa Nuotio and Raisa Omaheimo harness the autocomplete feature in Google search to generate “Google Poetics.” You can see the results posted on their Tumblr page. Yes, you can join in the fun, and fear naught, the Mighty Google won’t pull the plug on this project.

The embarrassment of riches offered by the mass of information easily accessed on teh webz offers the temptation to indulge in sloppy scholarship and cut ‘n paste research methods. But beware: failure to attribute sources can ruin your weekend. Benjamin A. Neil, a legal affairs prof (truth!) at Towson University, was busted for serial plagiarism and felt obliged to resign his position as head of the local school system’s ethics panel as a result. Wise move, Ben. A master of understatement, Neil defended his cadged scholarship saying, “I don’t think I’ve done anything wrong. The issue seems to be that I didn’t put things in quotes.” D’oh! Consider this a cautionary tale, boys and girls. Purloin, publish and perish.

And while we’re on the subject: Mark Liberman (contributor at Language Log) commented on a blog post by John McIntyre, who was riffing on Roy Peter Clark’s blog post, who in turn cites Richard Posner’s Little Book of Plagiarism about a particularly abstruse aspect of literary replication Posner calls “self-plagiarism.” Whew! Now you can add the Digital Warrior-Poet to that list of breadcrumbs. And if you’re not seeing tracers yet (gotta love those psychedelics), note that there is a “National Summit on Plagiarism and Fabrication” going on at the American Copy Editor’s Society conference in St. Louis as I upload this post. Is it just me, or does the blog format tend to produce things that resemble the cover of Pink Floyd’s classicUmmagumma album, “Ummagumma”?

Finally, I’d like to note that the humanities lost a staunch evangelist this week with the passing of Roger Ebert. His fearlessness and accessible style brought film criticism out of the realm of literary snootiness and into our everyday lives. He taught us how to appreciate the intricacies of the cinematic medium and he did it with grace, humor and goodwill. In a time when we could really use a few more heroes, we are all the more conscious of our profound loss. Roger has taken a “leave of presence,” as he put it, and we will miss his wit and humanity. His passing stands as a gentle reminder to us all to embrace this day, this moment.

the DW-P

Aden Nichols is an independent editor and writer. He is available for print and digital projects: books (academic, narrative/creative nonfiction, memoir, speculative/alternate history, etc.), websites/social media, and business communications. Visit his website (www.LittleFireEditorial.com) or email him at: Aden@LittleFireEditorial.com.

Knowledge + Creativity = Magic!

In a recent issue of Brain Pickings (one of my all-time favorite blogs), Maria Popova posited, “Though Steve Jobs may have been right in asserting that ‘creativity is just connecting things,’ it’s more than that—it’s connecting the right kinds of things. And, above all, it’s equipping oneself with the very things to connect in the first place—it’s building a mental catalog of knowledge, then cultivating the right ‘associative trails’ running through that catalog.”

This comment brought to mind Einstein’s pronouncement that “Information is not knowledge.” To which I would add (to bring it full circle): “Knowledge is not creativity.”

I have often heard it said that (ahem) older folks don’t “get” technology. Of course, this is nonsense. Despite the meme that asserts you need a 12-year-old to program your remote, young ’uns do not possess some special gene that graces them with digital intuition. There is no genetic or organic predisposition to techno-savvy. (Sorry, kids.) My friend Jeff McClurken, who does his darndest to teach digital history to college students, emphatically insists that beyond their texting and facebook dexterity, his charges are ill-equipped to employ new media in productive or creative ways. They are consumers rather than creators.

Achieving a certain comfort level with digital tools is a behavioral or social conditioning thing—we learn how to do it. Simply spending some hands-on time with devices and programs is a great place to start, and it certainly doesn’t hurt to be immersed in a social network that’s using technology to do creative things every day; it tempers the fear factor.

Life experience helps, too. Steve Jobs kenned this: “You can’t connect the dots looking forward; you can only connect them looking backwards.” This is, according to Popova, “because creativity, after all, is a combinatorial force. It’s our ability to tap into the mental pool of resources—ideas, insights, knowledge, inspiration—that we’ve accumulated over the years just by being present and alive and awake to the world, and to combine them in extraordinary new ways.” Life is an interdisciplinary enterprise.

So if you’ve been on the planet for a while and you have the willingness and desire to learn new things and then connect the dots, you actually have an advantage over the “chronologically challenged.” The longer we have functioned as “hunter-gatherers of interestingness” (as Maria phrases it), the more experiential material we have to draw upon—a much larger library, if you will.

Popova summarizes, “In order for us to truly create and contribute to the world, we have to be able to connect countless dots, to cross-pollinate ideas from a wealth of disciplines, to combine and recombine these ideas and build new ideas—like LEGOs. The more of these building blocks we have, and the more diverse their shapes and colors, the more interesting our creations will become.”

Oh yes, and the expanded Einstein quote is: “Information is not knowledge. The only source of knowledge is experience.”

Ergo, experience > knowledge. And knowledge + creativity = whatever you can imagine! So C=ke2 or something like that. It ain’t rocket science…

the DW-P

Aden Nichols is an independent editor and writer. He is available for print and digital projects: books (academic, narrative/creative nonfiction, memoir, speculative/alternate history, etc.), websites/social media, and business communications. Visit his website (www.LittleFireEditorial.com) or email him at: Aden@LittleFireEditorial.com.

(Illustration: Nicole Lacriola/Pinterest)

It’s Not About the Tools

I’m no technological determinist, but neither am I a Luddite. I see technology as a tool rather than an end in itself. But tools must be considered in context—a hammer and a chisel provide a day laborer an expeditious means of breaking up concrete, while in the hands of Michelangelo they become instruments of creative expression. Creating isn’t about the tools; the magic is in the way you wield them.

There is an ongoing debate within the nascent digital humanities community that questions whether “digital literacy” (i.e. proficiency with programming and coding) is a fundamental requirement for membership in the club. It’s a sort of right brain vs. left brain or art vs. science argument.

One camp believes this is a given. Its proponents migrated to the humanities from a computer science background and are therefore predisposed to think computers (and their programs) are the essential core element of any DH project. For them, you can’t be a serious digital humanist if you don’t code.

The other side of this tug o’ war comprises humanities scholars who are learning how to utilize computers to expand their creative horizons; they are humanists first and geeks-in-training second. They tend to view the computer as a tool, a means to an end, and feel that the ability to engage with those more at home with building digital tools is crucial to the collaborative nature of the enterprise.

Of course, there is also a growing cadre of folks who are quite comfortably ensconced in the space between. So in a way, it’s really just a matter of perspective—yin and yang.

The iconoclastic physicist and Nobel laureate Richard Feynman noted in his quirky memoir, “Then there were artists who had absolutely no idea about the real world. They … would say things like ‘I want to make a picture in three dimensions where the figure is suspended in space and it glows and flickers.’ They made up the world they wanted, and had no idea what was reasonable or unreasonable to make.”

Feynman’s dry wit makes it difficult to discern when he’s being sarcastic, but in any event, it is interesting to note that about the time he was working on the atomic bomb, a French colleague, Denis Gabor, was developing the holograph. Apparently, Pablo Picasso was onto something when he pronounced, “Everything you can imagine is real.”

Another well-known theoretical physicist and Nobel laureate named Albert Einstein once quipped, “I am enough of an artist to draw freely upon my imagination. Imagination is more important than knowledge. Knowledge is limited. Imagination encircles the world.” Nothing, it would seem, is impossible…

As any artisan—or digital humanist—will tell you, good tools are not only essential to producing good art, they are a joy to work with. Hence, a certain level of knowledge of one’s tools is a very important element of the creative process. But without that other key ingredient, imagination, technology is little more than a sophisticated means of breaking up concrete.

the DW-P

Aden Nichols is an independent editor and writer. He is available for print and digital projects: books (academic, narrative/creative nonfiction, memoir, speculative/alternate history, etc.), websites/social media, and business communications. Visit his website (www.LittleFireEditorial.com) or email him at: Aden@LittleFireEditorial.com.

(Illustration: Patty Cooper/Pinterest)