The Open Book

Rumors of the book’s death have clearly been exaggerated, and another lament is not needed. Still, I’m finding the books on my desk and shelves noticeably altered by the digital age of Kindles and iPads. My books have assumed a weight, for example, when I’m packing for trip, that I can’t recall them having had before. And sometimes when I turn the page, I have to pause over the extravagance of having had that page printed, assembled, bound, and shipped for me to read but once, perhaps adding a note to its luxuriant margin. Can it be that what remains the same is still transformed in subtle ways by this new age?

Certainly, those who live by the book have reason to be curious about how this form can continue to thrive as an object with which to think. Take the economy of the scholarly book. It may have escaped at least some of the great price increases of learned journals, only to be left aside in the rush online and accorded a smaller portion of research library acquisition budgets. More recently, with open access looking more and more, to funding agencies and publishers alike, as the future of journals, what then of the learned book?

The good news is that projects are afoot to open the books. The latest is the Humanities Open Book grant program, a million-dollar joint initiative of the Mellon Foundation and the National Endowment of the Humanities, the two principal funders, private and public, of the humanities in America. The Humanities Open Book, announced on January 15, 2015, promises to bring distinguished but out-of-print titles into the electronic realm on an open access basis. This approach of going back to the greats of scholarship, many of them still in copyright, recalls the paperback revolution of the last century, which introduced many, with Harper Torchlight and Beacon Books in hand, to the world of learning through such reasonably priced leading scholarly works of the previous decades back to the nineteenth century.

As for new, path-breaking books in the humanities, opportunities for public and open access have been created by the Open Humanities Press. Here the bold new move has been to draw on some of the biggest names in the humanities and social on its editorial board – Stephen Greenblatt, J. Hillis Miller, Gayatri Spivak and more – to calm the prestige anxieties to which scholarly publishing gives rise. OHP’s model includes partnering with libraries in supporting publishing costs and selling print-on-demand through Amazon (at under twenty dollars a volume).

Another initiative supporting open access to new books is Knowledge Unlatched. This one has, for my money, an economic model that could well – and I think should – prevail in open access across the humanities with the potential to inspire the social sciences and sciences, as well. Knowledge Unlatched is still in the pilot stage, but already close to three-hundred research libraries – far more than originally targeted for the pilot – have demonstrated their willingness to give a university or commercial press the money upfront needed to see a scholarly work published in an open access edition (with a print-on-demand edition also available). Think about searching for a work such as Lawrence Warner’s The Myth of Piers Plowman: Constructing a Medieval Literary Archive only to discover that this 2014 Cambridge University Press title costs $95.00 in hardcover, but is, at the same time, available to download in an open access edition, thanks to this new level of cooperation between research library and scholarly publisher.

This idea of libraries underwriting the cost of open access publishing to ensure the intellectual health and wellbeing of the monograph seems a great and sustainable good. Just as exciting is the possibility that after all the jockeying for advantage in online publishing over the last two decades, it is the humanities monograph that may be spearheading the economic model of greatest benefit and applicability to researchers and scholars across the disciplines and around the world, with advantages to readers everywhere.

Finally, let me note the significance oft the Creative Commons licensing of these open access titles in the humanities. It has a way of asserting that there is, with these learned works, but one private property right at issue within the commonwealth of learning. And that singular right, involving authorship attribution, serves readers, seeking a greater understanding of how a work fits with others, as well as authors. And then, on top of that, these Creative Commons models of the open book also hold the promise of hooking another generation on the fascination and value of learning, much as many of us were hooked.

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