The Digital and Print Revolution

All sorts of media are dealing with the consequences of the digital age.  From movies and music, to newspapers and books, any industry involved in the distribution of media has been affected. There are signs that such changes are increasingly impacting the world of academic publishing, which might have an enduring effect on new scholars for years to come.

Leonard Cassuto at the Chronicle wrote about one part of the future of academic publishing: publication of the long essay.  New medium-length books are now becoming more popular among academic presses.  Longer than the typical 15,000-word article, they are still shorter than the traditional monograph, or academic book, which can range from 80,000 100,000 words.  For the moment many of these smaller publications are parts of larger works being sold as e-books – but publishers are beginning to use it for original academic content as well.  Often new scholars who require a book for tenure are unable to find a publisher for a full-length manuscript. Cassuto interviews a handful of professors from a variety of disciplines who offer mixed reviews of the new format.  Ultimately, he concludes, “forcing the most vulnerable members of the academic community—that is, graduate students and junior faculty members—to fulfill outmoded requirements” is harmful and scholars should embrace progress, or at least endorse it and see where it goes.

The digital age has already made an impact on commercial publishing houses.  The online store Amazon originally began when its founder Jeff Bezos started selling books over the Internet in 1995.  It has grown to a billion-dollar business.  Its e-book reader, the Kindle, is also growing in popularity and there are a variety of different e-readers vying for a share of a larger and larger market.  E-book versions of the Hunger Games or Fifty Shades of Gray are as popular as their print copies.  Students in history know that AbeBooks is a necessary site for used copies of expensive course readings.

But the transformation hasn’t only been confined to publishing houses.  The digital age has affected the form of media and its delivery across many different industries. Netflix offers streaming television and movies directly to your computer or television. Print newspapers are going out of business across the country as more and more people read their news online through RSS feeds, browser bookmarks or aggregate sites like Reddit or Zite. Webcomics are also an incredible internet success story. Penny Arcade is a multi-million dollar company that runs gaming conventions, a charity, and even an online reality TV show. All of it stems from the comic strip started online by Mike Krahulik and Jerry Holkins 15 years ago. The type of content and the way in which we access it has shifted dramatically, and continues to do as we see the rise of the tablet, faster and more widely available networks, or other innovations.

Believe it or not, the digital revolution is not quite as revolutionary as we might think.  A similar change took place five hundred years ago with the invention of the printing press in the 1450s. Johann Gutenberg constructed a process to easily print words on a page.  A simple concept, but one which was incredibly faster than the old method of producing written work: hand-written manuscripts. Where once it would take years or decades to produce a single manuscript, the printing press could do it in days or weeks.

It also allowed for mass production and new, shorter books.  The printing press allowed for easily consumable and short-length tracts that could be brought anywhere. Taverns became one of the great sources of discussion and book-reading (aloud), while manuscripts were no longer written solely in a monastery. The knowledge derived from books, even if someone was only listening to them being read, was no longer the domain of monks and theologians. Books were so valuable in the Middle Ages they were chained to their desks. This change in length and mass production had great consequences for the development of literacy, particularly in the civilized parts of north, central, and northwest Europe.

Scholars were aghast at the sudden change in production. The amount of printed material increased by leaps and bounds. As early 1526, Humanist scholar Erasmus asked, “is there anywhere on earth exempt from theses swarms of new books? [Printers] fill the world with pamphlets and books [that are] … foolish, ignorant, malignant, libellous, mad, impious and subversive; and such is the flood that even things that might have done some good lose all their goodness.”  It is estimated in the 1400s in Europe that there were perhaps 1,000,000 copies of manuscripts produced in the entire century.  By the 1500s, the number of books printed was over 10,000,000.  By the 1800s, it was over a billion.  

The fear of declining quality in the face of increased quantity reflects the same concerns we have today with the massive amounts of information at our fingertips on the web.  They adapted by new approaches to absorbing information.  In the late 18th century, English writer Samuel Johnson theorized different levels of absorbing information while reading:  “hard study” for learned books read with pen in hand; “perusal” for close reading for specific information; “curious reading” for leisurely reading of fiction; “mere reading” for quickly scanning text for information.  Such differentiation was not as necessary before the influx of printed sources that confronted the learned.  It took them centuries to do so however, and in 2013 we may not have the luxury of waiting so long.

Today we face a similar crossroads as we slowly become a “digital society.” Academics too are dealing with the new questions of the Internet and the digital age.  The growth of e-books and their adoption as a legitimate publication for scholars points towards some new directions. If history is about communicating knowledge to the public, then these accessible and more easily purchased books are exactly what the discipline might need to revitalize itself and regenerate.  The more historians can interact with those outside of their profession, the more relevant our knowledge of history becomes. If we can adapt our work to fit in with the immense amount of information found online, and help guide the curious towards our own books or blogs that are more accurate (and hopefully better written!), we will have done something worthwhile. 

So academics should not be wary of change. New formats and delivery methods for our work are a good thing and, as we have shown, the concerns that have resulted from these new methods are not at all novel.  Some may succeed, some may fail, but they represent a future which has already arrived for many different industries related to content production, be it academic or commercial. As Cassuto suggests, we should be at the forefront of this change so that we can define its shape. Will peer-review become crowd-sourced? Will e-books be the solution for students and faculty's persistent problem with university bookstores (or student debt)? Will Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs) be a new way for young scholars to engage students across the world? As historians, we think other academics should embrace the changes that e-publishing offers. It’s in that change that historians can also find continuity.