‘Academic Book of the Future’, a BOOC review

In a previous post I discussed the importance of really creative design in the layout of books, no matter their genre. At some point, however, the traditional format(s) of the scholarly book runs into some pretty serious limitations. What can we as scholars and editors do to smash through the limitations of  the book, to imbue it with new affordances?

This is a question that fascinates me, and it has so many possible answers. The limitations of publication – largely legacies of analog conventions being transferred over to digital environments – need to be routinely interrogated, stretched, and broken. Books must escape the prison of the PDF if they are to thrive in digital spaces. It is necessary to create new intellectual space and express scholarly creativity in traditional modes, but also to press ahead in reforming form as well as content.

A personal favourite experiment is Elisabeth Ellsworth and Jamie Kruse’s Making the Geologic Now: Responses to Material Conditions of Contemporary Life (2012, punctum books). The book appears in both an artfully edited print edition (available print-on-demand or as a PDF download for a small donation) and an interactive companion web-book (here). This book was, and still is, an audacious experiment in publishing convention, and one that we can all learn from. In the digital era, a book is what you think it is. Experimentation is crucial, and punctum books continues to offer a safe environment and atelier for the creative scholar and editor (as is the journal postmedieval).

It was this sentiment that birthed the subject of my book review, another notable attempt to comprehensively expand and change the parameters of the scholarly book within a more formal and funded collaboration. This book is the fruit of the UK AHRC-funded project The Academic Book of the Future. One of the major outcomes of this exciting project is BOOC (Books as Open Online Content), a new publishing format produced in collaboration with UCL Digital Press. The first BOOC in the new series (also called The Academic Book of the Future) is an attempt to push for a new and expanded standard in the production of online edited volumes, incorporating traditional text, blog posts, ephemera such as tweets (and the increasingly-crucial Storify), and the ever-more common medium of conference audio recordings/video.

BOOC

The book (and BOOC) is a breath of fresh air, and shows the efforts of meticulous planning, a pragmatic application of editorial creativity, awareness of the modes in which twenty-first century scholarship emerges, and the ways in which the twenty-first century scholar reads and re-reads. In case you hadn’t guessed, I’m a fan.

The BOOC format encapsulates a variety of essays and perspectives at once, succeeding at a task that a conventional book would not be capable of. It is broken down by format (there are blue essays, green blog posts, pink Storifys and orange videos of presentations). The content types are also organised by category (show all, academia, publishing, libraries and bookselling). The volume makes concessions to the traditions of the print book – it has an introduction, for example – but presents a Table of Contents that gathers the diverse strands of internet scholarship. Online scholarly activity generates a rich plethora of content – SoundCloud recordings, YouTube videos, tweets, SketchFab objects, visualisations, graphics, text – that need a home in which they are presented to best advantage, but also preserved from the gaping maw of digital death that is the archived web (as this fascinating book shows, the Internet Archive can only do so much).

BOOC sets out to capture and edit this content in a solid and flexible format, and is the experimental issue one of many to come. The interface developed by UCL Digital Press (who have now developed a range of creative formats) is very pared down and elegant, a real pleasure to read. The typesetting is great (and stored, I imagine, in a useful reusable format at the back end of the publisher’s servers), and the apparatus surrounding the presentation of the videos, tweet and blog posts frames them well. The book performs all of the traditional roles of an edited volume – it captures arguments for posterity with editorial curation – but is also dynamic and flexible. It is well supported and reproducible. Samantha Rayner (the project Principal Investigator) puts it well in the introduction:

BOOC is not the answer to the question, ‘What will the academic book of the future be?’ – and it doesn’t claim to be. It is, however, the tangible result of a great deal of consultation, discussion, innovation, and perseverance. It represents some of the issues – contentious, complicated, deep-rooted, emerging, and provocative – that confront everyone who engages with academic publication. It will, hopefully, help deliver some practice-based answers to these issues, and in doing so, move the debates on.

The format is extremely capacious in its definition of ‘book content’, sourcing bespoke essays, re-posted blogs (a format that has shown its merit in venues such as the experimental Journal of Digital Humanities), Storified Twitter discussions from conferences, and videos from conferences and symposia. This diversity is extremely refreshing, and really captures the lively way that scholars are talking about their work in the twenty-first century. It crystallizes ephemera such as tweets and presentations into future-proof resources. It makes high-quality blog posts part of the permanent scholarly record. And yes, it contains essays. It captures the proceedings of an extremely important conference at the British Library on ‘The Academic Book in the South‘ for posterity. All of these tasks are a great service to academia, and completely Open Access!

As Rayner puts it, the format is a conversation as much as an experiment, and it is a conversation that we must continue to have. BOOC attempts to answer some important questions: how can born-digital books expand to be a different entity than their paper companions?; how can the increasingly-crucial blog debates that drive scholarly engagement and communication be preserved and amplified?; is there a better/different way to capture the feel of a conference than proceedings or edited volumes?; and, importantly, how can new book formats serve to future-proof scholarly outputs that are often nebulous and hard to quantify?

Some problems remain when money is involved. The perennial issues of access and affordability, for example: there will presumably be a large Gold Open Access/book processing fee to create a book of this nature, but I note that UCL Press – to their credit – have indicated a willingness to waive fees for unfunded authors/editors in certain cases.

This is the first step in a long journey and, above all, requires editorial imagination. This is not purely a function of layout, coding skills, writing or design, but a hybrid of these skills. The more that publishers and editors see themselves as experimenters and creatives, then the more new academic publishing formats will thrive. This includes both the avant-garde, and the more established publishing houses. And, in my opinion, it should be a thing of beauty. Not the beauty of a painting or of a sunset, but of a well-designed book.

As I mentioned above, I strongly feel that it is crucial to avoid a world where these new formats are the preserve of the academically privileged (grant holders, senior scholars, those with institutional affiliations etc.) alone – a sentiment to end this post with.

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