Friday, April 03, 2009

Getting to the REAL Issues Regarding U Presses Going Digital

On March 25, Inside Higher Education ran an editorial by Scott McLemee titled, "A Change is Gonna Come." McLemee is obviously a bright guy and correctly parses the issues surrounding digital scholarship. He also presents a very balanced discussion of the pros and cons. I encourage everyone in the academy and in libraries to read the piece carefully.

I think that there IS a danger of University Presses becoming blogs. And my fears aren't related to my "luddite" orientation as a library and book-hugger. I am worried about scholars and researchers' ability to conduct research effectively and consistently with reliable authority.

The million dollar question is, Will future (near and far) readers of scholarly works be able to find the materials cited in them?

But the "nearer" term question is will monographs and articles published digitally be vetted as thoroughly as those published in traditional formats? McLemee points out that there is no logical reason that this can't be so. Obviously, modern scholarly journals and books can be subjected to at least as much editorial scrutiny as print versions of the same, and I think that the skeptics, instead of being "luddites" are simply looking for assurances that they will be subject to the same level of scrutiny. So far, those assurances haven't been forthcoming.

There is another issue that McLemee doesn't raise that gives me, as a librarian, the most pause about diving into this revolution with both feet: that is preservation. What guarantees are in place, or that can be put in place that will assure users that the material will remain the same as it was when published? One feature of print materials is that once it is printed and distributed, it is very difficult to change without issuing new editions of the work. (It's annoying enough when publishers make corrections from printing to printing....) When a work is published digitally today, how will a reader in ten years know that it is the same work? (I'm not even raising the question of whether the future reader will even be able to find and read the work born digital today.) I've heard all the arguments that print's no better. It can burn up, get soaked, be mislaid, etc. But so what? We do our best with whatever format we're working with. Digital formats can't give us any better assurances that it will remain more accessible or consistent than print. It's just in a "cooler", "hipper" format. And we have much less experience with digital than we have with print. We know how to care for print, and we know that it we take care of it properly it will last for hundred and hundred of years.

Skeptics aren't luddites, or obstacles to progress at all. We're cautious. We're careful. And I think that there's a chance that early adopters and technophiles will some day thank us.