A recent posting at the Harvard University Press’s blog poses the intriguing, timely, and perhaps disturbing question “What is a scholarly book?” Its author, Jeffrey Schnapp, is not exactly a disinterested party: in addition to being a professor of Romance languages and literature at Harvard he also serves as faculty director of metaLAB (at) Harvard (about which more below), and as faculty co-director of the Berkman Center for Internet and Society. He has, in other words, a dog or two in this fight—which may mean he has a bias but also suggests that he (unlike some who are pleased to weigh in on this and related issues) has some idea what he’s talking about.

Schnapp is general editor of the metaLABprojects series, a project of Harvard University Press, which, according to his posting, intends to create

a distinctive genre of scholarly publication endowed with the sort of curb appeal usually restricted to books found on the tables at architecture bookshops… the dream here is to forge a new genre of scholarly book that plays even as it engages in deep forms of historically informed argument: a genre whose natural home is university publishing even as it appeals to extramural audiences.

It’s interesting to note that each of the three books currently slated for release in the series is something of a meta-treatment: each of them appears to focus primarily on the emerging trend of which it is a part, rather than on a traditional scholarly discipline: one is about the future of libraries in a world where the definition of a book is no longer unambiguous; another fuses “digital humanities with media studies and graphic design history”; the third is “a digital platform transmogrified into a book” that examines the ethics of mapmaking in a hyperlinked information environment.

Some observers might see all this as a natural step in the emergence of a new scholarly dynamic—of course the first thing to do is interrogate and define the field, its tools, and its context. Others might see it as evidence that these new transdisciplinary, transformat, transwhatever scholarly products are not suited to traditional (or maybe even serious) scholarship at all. Still others will see it as evidence for the emergence of a new field of legitimate and rigorous scholarly investigation: the nature of scholarship itself in a radically different new world of communication.

This may seem trivially obvious, but I think it’s worth noting that there are at least two very distinct dimensions of newness here: new kinds of scholarship, and new kinds of scholarly products. Now, I realize that it’s not entirely uncontroversial to suggest a line of demarcation between the scholarship and its product—to do so is to raise the possibility that publishing is something other than “an integral part of the research process“—but I don’t think there’s any question that these two dimensions reward separate consideration of some kind.

Here’s another question that may seem banal but is, I think, actually fairly urgent: when it comes to the scholarly monograph, are we, in fact, worrying too much about how to keep things as they are?

Consider this further quote from Schnapp’s blog posting:

All three [of the books in the metaLABprojects series] converge upon questions of emerging knowledge forms and the future of institutions of learning in ways that are rooted in traditional humanistic questions of historical inquiry, interpretation, and critical analysis but that extend a friendly hand to an expanded reading public. ‘Friendly’ here means the tendering of invitations to skim as well as to read in depth.

In research libraries (and I suspect, in scholarly publishing circles) it is a rarely—and only grumpily—acknowledged truth that even in the print era, scholarly monographs were very often skimmed and searched rather than deeply read. By acknowledging and welcoming such an approach, the books in question break a taboo. Should it be broken? The author’s cheerful invocation of “bright colors and visual riches” will not comfort those inclined to suspect that all of this will lead to a lack of rigor—but surely it doesn’t have to.

So one question being asked by Schnapp and his colleagues is: what are some new and innovative ways that we can create and present scholarship to the world? Here’s another question, one that I think has to follow from that one: can we figure out a way to ensure the rigor of such products, and having done so, can we get the academy to acknowledge the scholarly legitimacy of these unconventionally-rigorous products—and if so, how quickly? Because I don’t see junior faculty jumping onboard the train of newness-and-innovation (let alone brightly colored and playful innovation with lots of, er, curb appeal) unless that train is very clearly on a track that leads to Tenureville. Should such scholarly outputs be considered valid tenure-leading products? For the sake of argument, let’s all agree that the answer is “yes.” Ah, but will they? That’s a tougher one. We in academia love, love, love to talk about the importance of change, but when change threatens our own comfortable structures and routines, we tend to change the subject to time-honored values.

For some additional interesting thoughts, observations, and questions about the future of the scholarly monograph, I recommend Roger Schonfeld’s very recently-published white paper titled “Stop the Presses: Is the Monograph Headed Toward an E-only Future?” (the fourth entry in Ithaka S&R’s Issue Briefs series, to which—full disclosure—I have also contributed).

Schonfeld’s paper does much more than just consider the likelihood and the implications of a massive shift of scholarly monograph publishing from print to online; he also hypothesizes about a future in which readers are connected directly with primary sources from within the secondary sources that cite them, considers what current trends suggest for the future of the dissertation,  and poses a set of challenging questions—not just about the future of the monograph, but (as Schnapp and his colleagues do, though somewhat differently) of scholarship itself.

Rick Anderson

Rick Anderson

Rick Anderson is Associate Dean for Collections and Scholarly Communication in the J. Willard Marriott Library at the University of Utah. He speaks and writes regularly on issues related to libraries, scholarly communication, and higher education, and has served as president of NASIG and of the Society for Scholarly Publishing.

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18 Thoughts on "The Future (?) of the Scholarly (?) Monograph (?)"

Graphics, art, design and popularization are not new add-ons to scholarship. Nor is policy consulting, as in my case. But none of these count as scholarship, correctly I think. They are simply different careers.

Yes, they are. But the fact that graphic design itself isn’t the same thing as scholarship doesn’t mean that good and rigorous scholarship can’t be characterized by excellent and inviting graphic design (or art, or marketing, etc.). I’m not sure that’s a very controversial question, though. The deeper and tougher question, I think, is about whether good and rigorous scholarship can simultaneously “(tender) invitations to skim as well as to read in depth.” That’s a pretty interesting proposition, and one that I think many may find alarming.

Rick, I was responding to your issue about the road to Tenureville. As for invitations to skim, isn’t that the role of titles, abstracts and chapter summaries? Beyond that, I do not know about UP monographs, but policy analyses often feature all sorts of summary bullets and boxes, sometimes to the point of distraction. Plus I often see cases where the summary and the text do not say the same thing, but that is another issue.

As for invitations to skim, isn’t that the role of titles, abstracts and chapter summaries?

Sure, but titles and summaries and abstracts aren’t the same thing as the entities that they describe. They are metadata, and skimmable metadata is nothing new. What would be new, I think, is the concept of a scholarly work that is fundamentally skimmable as well as deeply readable. I’m not sure what such a work would look like, and I’m not sure how the academy would respond to it. I do think it’s an intriguing idea.

Perhaps I do not know what you mean by skimmable. As I mentioned, the technical reports I deal with have lots of summary features so you do not have to read the whole thing to get the gist. These include executive summary, conclusions, chapter summaries, boxes and bullet lists highlighting key points, etc. The policy world is a skimmable realm. Or do you have something else in mind?

The technical reports that you deal with are not what’s being discussed by Schnapp et al. They’re talking about scholarly monographs, and about what new, mutant forms scholarly monographs might take in the near future. In the past, a scholarly monograph has not offered an “invitation to skim”–the only real way to divine its content has been to read it in a thorough and linear way. Schnapp is proposing something new, but it’s not yet clear what that thing will really look like, what “skimmable” would exactly mean, or whether the academy will accept it as real scholarship.

I understand Rick. My question is whether the features I have been listing are what is needed? If not then what? There is a vagueness confusion here. I am trying to resolve it.

In the print era, non-text elements were added by publishers to enhance readability and for aesthetic or branding reasons. It was not an integral part of the author’s message. This continues in the digital era with publishers adding media and interactive elements as a garnish of sorts. The author may be consulted regarding these garnishes but it still comes after the fact of authoring and, so, doesn’t make a critical difference in conveying the author’s message.
However, as authors begin to take hold of new digital tools, we may begin to see these non-text elements becoming essential and even critical to the author’s message because the authors have added these new digital tools to their skill set.
Perhaps a harbinger of this future is E.O. Wilson’s “Life on Earth” (see:
Although professor Wilson had a lot of help on this project, that level of assistance wasn’t strictly essential. It is entirely possible for any scholarly writer to create similar works without much or any assistance using the free iBooks Author application for MacOS X. In this example, the graphics, media and interactive elements are all very much integrated into the author’s message. There is little to no inessential garnish.

The problem is that all this stuff is a huge amount of work compared to writing, which is just a long string of words divided into sentences. But in a way the Web already gives us these elaborate multi-media structures, via link navigation. There just does not happen to be a single document or author. I have been heavily involved in hypertext multimedia since the 1980’s and that future is already well established.

Where are all these architecture bookshops mentioned in first quote? I have never been in an architecture bookshop. Do their table displays actually constitute a recognizable genre?

All of these issues were raised some time ago by Robert Darnton in his essay “The New Age of the Book”: There he put forth a vision of a new kind of multidimensional, multilayered document that incorporated aspects of the traditional monograph but went well beyond it and helped take full advantage of what electronic media could do. This vision was soon implemented through the complementary Mellon-funded Gutenberg=e and ACLS Humanities E-Book projects, which Darnton helped launch when he was president of the American Historical Association. I wrote a post-mortem oif the Gutenberg-e project for Against the Grain in which i traced the origins of this vision back to Cornell librarian Ross Atkinson:

The origin of this inspiration, I believe, came from conversations I had with Darnton about how technology could help create a new kind of book, unlike anything that could be accomplished in codex form. I drew heavily in these conversations from an article that Cornell librarian Ross Atkinson had published in College & Research Libraries in May 1993 titled “Networks, Hypertext, and Academic Information Services: Some Longer-Range Implications.” His term for this “new kind” of document structure is “concentric stratification,” which “might consist of a top level that would contain some kind of extended abstract; this level or stratum would then be connected to the next level, and so on. Each succeeding level would contain the information in the previous level, but would provide in addition greater degrees of substance and detail. Scholarly communications that would require an extended context, and would therefore deserve a monograph in the paper environment, would in the online environment merely include more levels than would a communication that would in a print environment have been published as a journal article.” As hinted here, Atkinson sees electronic publishing as breaking down the dichotomy between monographs and journal articles, and he also sees reading shifting from a linear form to something “that is done, so to speak, in three dimensions: first, one can read horizontally or linearly within any level of a given publication; second, one can read vertically or hierarchically through the levels of any particular publication; and, third, one can read referentially back through the constituent citations (be these explicit or implicit) into other texts on the network.” It struck me that this approach could open up wonderful opportunities to make available often esoteric research to a variety of audiences, ranging from lay people and journalists wanting basic information about new research results in down-to-earth language to highly trained specialists who want every last detail including references to data on which the results reported are based—and everyone in between. If this were to become the future path of scholarly publishing, I could readily envisage roles for university editors, reference librarians, and public information staff—not to mention computer experts—to play in creating such multifaceted, multilayered documents.


Indeed it is. One of the reasons Gutenberg-e proved to be unsustainable, according to Kate Wittenberg in her own post-mortem assessment, was that each book had to be designed de novo, which was a very costly way to proceed. And by design I don’t mean just the differences in design we expect between normal print books but differences in the way the books were structured online, which required IT staff to develop specific approaches for each book. Wittenberg says that, in retrospect, it would have been better to come up with a few templates that all the authors could have been instructed to choose among (just as many scholarly publishers adopted “model book” design templates for print books to keep costs down). Another problem Gutenberg-e faced was that many journals in the field would not review the books unless they could see something in print form; but these were kinds of documents that, by design, could not be completely represented in print. It is not clear from the Harvard blog description whether either of these problems has been confronted and solutions found.

From the metaLABprojects series abstract: “The volumes’ eclectic, improvisatory, idea-driven style advances the proposition that design is not merely ornamental, but a means of inquiry in its own right.”

According to Schnapp, this means that the series books

“intermingle long forms with variations on the short that play off of conventions borrowed from WWW and magazine culture. Every essay is framed by a brief visual-verbal preface and post-face. A dozen or so “windows” open up micro-perspectives on the essay’s macro-theme. There’s a linkography instead of a bibliography. The perimeter of the covers is framed by mini-icons that sum up the book’s contents; a listing of tag lines with key topics and themes is anchored to the fold running down the inside of the French flaps. Instead of an authorial index, author names are bolded in the notes. Red pages and typographical shifts are used to mark new units within the argument.”

Although Schnapp is in good company with fellow series author Johanna Drucker, this sounds like “WIRED-meets-monograph” hype. For well over a decade now, the chefs, sous-chefs and diners here have been supping at STM publishers’ communal creation the Digital Object Identifier, which transformed endnotes and has already delivered the linkography. What next? A “critical linkography”, one with emoticons and thumbs-up “likes”?

But that is flip. Agreed; books are not just words strung one after another. Hyperventilation aside, by drawing on the design apparatus of graphical user interfaces, the print books in the metaLABproject series may contribute to understanding better how the printed book as information technology works and, vice versa, how in the GUI, the ebook or book in the browser, we need to evolve the apparatus by which the print book works and adapt that to our digital advantage.

I plan to buy one or two, but I hope the ebook versions are discounted. Thanks for the tip, Rick.

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