The Contested Future of the Book, Part 1

*This post is from Abby Scheel, one of our three humanities librarians.

A couple weeks ago I was fortunate enough to represent FSU Libraries at two meetings near Dupont Circle in Washington, DC.  Both meetings dealt in different ways with one of the most contested issues for academic libraries and scholars: the scholarly monograph.  There is so much to share from both meetings that I’m going to break this report-back into two parts.  Today is the Association of Research Libraries Fall Forum: Wanted Dead or Alive – The Scholarly Monograph.

The ARL Fall Forum addressed the future of the book directly and with maximum controversy (see title above). Based on a title like that you might think this is yet another session extolling the demise of the book and the dawn of the age of all things digital. Yes and no. The scholarly monograph is still king in humanities disciplines because of its connection with promotion and tenure. But it’s time to stop privileging the monograph published in print by an academic press over other means of disseminating the “long-form argument.” How to and why do this? What are the ramifications of this move? This was what the presenters all addressed during the daylong forum that included points of view from all sides of the issue, from faculty, librarians, and publishers in the US, UK, Canada, and Australia. Here are a few of the highlights of the day in my own words:

Dupont Circle, Washington, D.C.

“Monograph thinking” vs. “virtual research environment (VRE) thinking”: Keynote speaker Laura Mandell called for a paradigm shift in the way we approach scholarly discourse. Scholarly discussion needs to be immediate and interconnected in a way not possible with the current printed (or static PDF) monograph.

Think “long form argument” instead of “monograph”: The monograph as a format for broadcasting lengthy discourse has long had its weaknesses. Think of the challenges of including supplementary content (music, images, tabulated data, etc.) with the printed book. Today’s technology, however, should allow scholars to experiment to find the best medium and format to present their long-form arguments. As Timothy Burke pointed out, this is in fact a way to “rediscover our history” as until about 30 or 40 years ago scholars could be quite flexible and published various types and lengths of publications.

Promotion and tenure processes need to evolve: This is really the sticking point especially for humanities scholars. The monograph is a comfortable commodity that P&T boards can easily recognize and evaluate. The P&T process becomes much more complicated when board members are faced with new types of projects they don’t know how to evaluate. Recently, national scholarly organizations are starting to step in to address this problem. Timothy Burke of the American Historical Association told of their efforts to put together a kind of advisory board that history departments could call on for knowledgeable evaluations of nontraditional scholarly work. But Burke also advised scholars working in nontraditional formats that they need to be prepared to explain their work often and loudly.

In addition to talk about the future of the book, we also heard about two initiatives to affect change in the publication process. The Association of American Universities (AAU) and Association of Research Libraries (ARL) are launching a joint project aimed at changing the funding model for and (ideally) making room for publication of more scholarly monographs. This project provides funding to universities to subvent the cost of publication of a new faculty member’s first book as both a traditional print edition and as an open digital edition with a participating university press.  The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation is interested in moving the monograph to the digital realm to make the humanities more relevant in today’s discourse. They are also looking at offering grants to fund such publications through an author’s home institution.

Interested in learning more about this year’s ARL Fall Forum?

See Roger Schonfeld’s (of Ithaka S+R) overview of the day here or read this report by Colleen Flaherty on Inside Higher Ed.

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