This month sees the publication of a book that represents an unprecedented example of library-author-publisher collaboration. While trying to avoid any blatant promotion of the book itself, I would like to discuss the origins and some of the implications of the collaborative project, which I believe are significant.
Before I begin, several disclosures are in order: first and most obviously, the University of Utah’s J. Willard Marriott Library is my employer. Second, Allyson Mower reports to me in her role as Scholarly Communications and Copyright Librarian here in the library. Third, David Crotty (our Editor in Chief here in the Scholarly Kitchen) is an employee of Oxford University Press, though not directly connected with their books program.
With those notices out of the way, let me explain the genesis of this project and why I think it’s so exciting and potentially important.
In 2010, Allyson Mower was contacted by Peggy Battin, a professor in the University of Utah’s philosophy department. Dr. Battin had a question about the copyright status of a source she was using in the course of putting together what was turning out to be a monumental scholarly compilation and discussion of historical sources on the ethics of suicide. The book had originally been envisioned as a volume of roughly 800 pages, but — due to the wealth of available and relevant sources — had grown substantially, and the manuscript was now approaching 1200 pages.
While Dr. Battin had a publication contract with Oxford University Press (OUP), this manuscript was clearly more than the publisher was going to be able to handle in print format. In the course of their conversations about this situation, Allyson and Dr. Battin hit upon a novel idea: what if OUP were to publish a redacted version of the manuscript as a roughly 750-page print volume, and the Marriott Library were to host the full manuscript on the Web?
Many conversations and meetings between Allyson, Dr. Battin, and representatives of OUP and the Marriott Library ensued. In the process, an unusual (actually, we believe unprecedented) scholarly resource began to take shape: a condensed printed version of a scholarly book connected (by means of chapter-level QR codes) to a full online version of the same book, the latter featuring links to online versions of primary sources, or to library catalog records where the sources are available only in print, as well as interactive features that allow readers to submit corrections, suggest additional sources, and discuss the issues covered in the book. Best of all, the online version of the book would be made freely available to all.
Between fall of 2010 and the 2015 publication of the book and its online archive, Allyson and a team of librarians, library staff, research assistants, and contractors provided copyright research (including fair use evaluations), re-keying of PDF files as text files, and the creation of an archive infrastructure including site architecture, metadata assignment, establishment of a title-based domain name, and the creation of QR codes. They also worked with Dr. Battin to create a layout format and general site design for the archive, and created links to library records for original sources in WorldCat.
Throughout this period, Dr. Battin was finalizing the text of the book and continuing to add new sources as she discovered them — a luxury that was made possible only because the project’s definitive home would now be a dynamic online archive.
The Digital Archive
The Ethics of Suicide: Historical Sources Digital Archive is published on a blog platform. From its homepage, the reader can link to a table of contents covering the full version of the book, which features primary sources organized chronologically and by geographic region, beginning with an Egyptian didactic story from the early 1000s BC and ending with pieces of analysis, commentary, and theology by living authors from a variety of political, intellectual, and faith traditions.
Alongside the table of contents is a set of content outlines that allows the reader to jump immediately to contributions by author, by intellectual or cultural or religious tradition, by era, and by geographical region. The site’s content is full-text searchable, of course, and readers may comment online (comments are moderated, due to the potentially touchy and even sacred nature of the subject matter), may submit corrections, and may submit additional material to be considered for inclusion in the archive.
Implications for the Future of Library Publishing
This project is interesting for quite a number of reasons. Apart from whatever value and interest the topic and the content hold for the world of historical, sociological, and ethical scholarship, the publishing model itself both exemplifies long-known benefits of hybrid print/electronic publishing and points to possible future directions in the relationship between publishers and libraries. For example:
Complementary strengths and weakness of print and digital. Very often the choice between print and e-publishing constitutes a trade-off of one set of strengths and weaknesses for another: printed books are a pleasure to read, but poorly suited for distribution. Ebooks are easily accessible, but can be painful to read at length. The content of a print book is static, which means you can count on it (for better and for worse) to stay the same over time; the content of an ebook is dynamic and doesn’t offer the same guarantees of consistency. Print books have severe practical length limitations; ebooks don’t. Print books can be read without a power source. Ebooks offer full-text searchability. And so forth. But by publishing this book in a hybrid format and partnering with a library in the creation of its online version and archive, OUP has counterbalanced all of the downsides of each format: The Ethics of Suicide is simultaneously easily readable, fully searchable, portable, expandable, dynamic, static, globally available, costly, and free.
Potential for real library/publisher partnership. Most current examples of library publishing involve libraries taking on publishers’ traditional roles, and in some cases might actually more accurately be termed mergers and acquisitions: a university press’s reporting line is moved into the library; a library acquires or creates new open access journals and publishes them in-house; a library creates a repository of locally-produced faculty scholarship, some of it formally published elsewhere but some of it not; a library creates a publicly-available online archive of student theses and dissertations. But the Ethics of Suicide project is something very different: in this case, the publisher basically did what it has always done (creating a high-quality print volume and distributing it according to longstanding practice), and the library is doing something quite similar to what it has always done (organizing and maintaining a scholarly archive and making it accessible by the creation of extensive metadata), but by fulfilling these roles in cooperative and complementary ways, the two organizations have created a living document that is far more accessible and useful to scholars and interested readers than the book alone would be.
Book as database. There’s nothing unprecedented about a book being used as a database—remember the piles of printed volumes we used to carry out of our college libraries’ stacks, intending not to read them but to interrogate them, looking for relevant bits of information? Nor is there anything especially new about a formerly print-only title becoming an online database of content, updated as needed on an ongoing basis. But I’m not aware of any previous example of a publisher releasing a traditional print monograph alongside an expanded and freely-available digital version, the latter to be maintained (and its continued expansion moderated) by a library. In some ways, this is the mirror image of the traditional “freemium” model, which makes a bare-bones or limited version of a document or service available for free and an expanded or enhanced version available at a cost. Here the more limited version (in terms of content and functionality) is available at a cost to those who prefer the more comfortable reading format, and the expanded, feature-rich, and dynamic version is available at no charge in a version more suited to research than to linear reading. None of this is to say that one version is “better” than the other, only that they offer interlocking sets of strengths and weaknesses, and thus the two versions truly complement each other and together constitute a whole that is much stronger and more useful than either version would be all by itself.
Library as scholarly problem-solver. It’s important not to overlook the fact that in this particular case, the library solved a serious and keenly felt problem for both the scholar in question and her publisher. Dr. Battin wanted to publish her book, and OUP wanted to publish it. Dr. Battin didn’t want to exclude any of the relevant and significant sources she had gathered, but OUP couldn’t possibly publish all of them in the usual way. The library had the knowledge and capacity necessary to solve both of those problems to the satisfaction of both parties, and to the benefit of scholarship worldwide. The library has always existed, in large part, to solve problems for scholars — but in this case we were able to do so in a new way and in a way that created benefits that will be felt far beyond the boundaries of our campus.
I make no grand claims for this project — I don’t see any reason to believe that it’s going to change everything about scholarly publishing as we know it. But I do find it tremendously exciting both for the quality and quantity of important content that it has made available to billions of people around the world at virtually no cost to them, and for the example it offers of genuinely symbiotic collaboration between scholars, librarians, and publishers.