I can’t tell you when I first encountered C. Wright Mills’s article, On Intellectual Craftsmanship, but for me — as an educated layperson — the article was memorable for its discussion of the steps a working scholar should take in beginning to integrate his or her thinking about a topic with the scholarship of those who had gone before. The critical take-away for me was Mills’s characterization of the monographs that would be generated by his young audience of social scientists as being “organized releases from the continuous work that goes into them.” The scholarly process — his ‘continuous work’ — could be expected to emerge from files of notes, annotated pages, and scribbled connections among ideas.
I was reminded of Mills’s work when I was reading the working draft of a JSTOR Labs report published in December of 2016, Reimagining the Digital Monograph: Design Thinking to Build New Tools for Researchers. (The draft is open for comment until January 31, 2017). JSTOR Labs has already launched tools for discovering content quoting material from Shakespeare as well as for helping to understand the United State Constitution. If the Labs’ folks were revisiting the structure of the monograph, I was curious as to the outcome.
The report sets out a dozen functional or design principles aimed at fostering an ideal engagement between scholarly reader and content presented in monographic form. An extended appendix includes a set of user profiles built from a small group of ethnographic studies of practicing historians and graduate students in the field. The studies look at devices and applications used by the practitioners, how they found and evaluated the monographs that they used, and the specific activities of information extraction, close reading, and subsequent re-use. JSTOR Labs used these findings to develop its Topicgraph visualization tool, which is specifically aimed at streamlining the process of identifying and evaluating the depth and scope of topic coverage within a single title.
There was a throw-away reference in the report to the possible creation of “The Way Better Table of Contents.” The TopicGraph tool is not that; rather, it appears to be a supplement to both the table of contents (ToC) as well as the back-of-the-book index. In various ways, the six profiles appended to JSTOR’s report note the prevalent activity of rapidly scanning standard elements — the ToC, the introduction, the end-notes — in order to assess a book’s argument and relevance. For me, then, the question arose as to whether those standard elements of front- and back-matter might need to be reconsidered.
Casually speaking, the ToC in a book signals the book’s structure or organizational flow. In a human-readable environment, its chapter headings serve a descriptive purpose as well as a navigational one. In the instance of a biography, for example, the TOC allows one to navigate to precisely the point of the subject’s life that is of greatest interest. When I pick up John Halperin’s The Life of Jane Austen (Johns Hopkins University Press, 1984), the ToC features descriptive and informative chapter headings (the “Years of the First Trilogy, 1796-1799” followed by the “Treacherous Years, 1800-1806”). Such specificity is more serviceable to the serious reader than perhaps the ToC encountered in Irene Collins’ more narrowly focused biography Jane Austen: The Parson’s Daughter, (Hambledon Press, 1998), in which the chapter headings are far more general—“Dancing,” “War,” “Love and Tragedy.” The serious reader has to compare the two volumes, before he or she can recognize that Collins’ chapter “Love and Tragedy” covers at least in part the same timeframe in Austen’s life as Halperin’s chapter “The Years of the First Trilogy.”
Leveraged against one or both of those titles, JSTOR’s elegant prototype is a visualization tool that would allow me, the reader, to grasp more immediately where within those two relevant chapters I might turn in order to reach segments most relevant to a study of Austen’s early novel Sense and Sensibility. On the one side of the screen is the visualization display showing key concepts and phrases within the text, while on the other side is an online PDF reader for viewing the text. Clicking on the left-hand display takes one immediately to the critical page and/or chapter. The value-add lies in the glance-ability provided by the tool. If the two biographies I mentioned had been part of JSTOR’s beta, the visualization would have displayed the greater frequency of references in Halperin’s book without the loss of time required to scan the table of contents and then flipping to the index. It’s less disruptive to the workflow process of the reader in pursuit of a thought.
Consider applying that kind of evaluative support to another book on my shelf, A Companion to Jane Austen Studies (Greenwood Press, 2000). This is not a monograph. It is a series of individually authored literature reviews and bibliographical essays that provide the reader with an overview of useful scholarship in the field. There is no guidance provided as to the content of the various essays except for those listed chapter headings. The value-add of the Topicgraph tool, if applied to this volume, would be that I could see where references to Sense and Sensibility might occur outside of the two chapters readily identifiable in the ToC.
Of course, the value of such a tool could be taken a step further if it were constructed to run against a full collection of Austen-related materials. Such new dashboard tools could be a boon to digitized special collections in saving the time of the reader.
Front and back matter are evaluative aids. Aside from making available PDF scans of those pages, I’m not persuaded that digital platforms have done much in support of that active form of use. There may be specific platform functionalities that have been introduced; in the trade sector, I’m thinking of such props as Amazon’s “Look Inside” feature or the Kindle X-Ray function. (Amazon’s X-Ray feature, useful in identifying people, places, and terms appearing in a book, is currently applied primarily to those works of fiction that might be assigned in the classroom. Its value is thereby limited to being a type of rapid reference or “look-up” tool.) Aside from wondering what’s holding up Amazon’s application of the tool to nonfiction, the next question that springs to mind is why digital book publishing in the humanities and social sciences hasn’t assumed more of a leadership role.
Front and back matter isn’t something that serious readers just skip over. As JSTOR Lab’s report shows, it’s where they actually begin. Is there a way to make those critical, “load-bearing” supports more useful for the purposes of conveying information or aiding in navigation? For years, there have been mutterings about metadata and abstracts at the chapter level, but (one assumes) the lack of any evident progress in that regard is due to the additional workload for authors that it entails. It’s much better to see how technology might automate and amplify meaning.
One of the dozen design principles that was referenced in the JSTOR Labs report (in fact the primary principle heading the list) was the centrality of great writing to the monograph. There may be automated functionalities that can amplify or otherwise be appended to a linear narrative, but monographs rely upon the ability of the author to express his or her findings logically and effectively via text. If we’re to redesign the monograph then, it is key to avoid blocking the connection that can made between author and reader. In Reimagining the Digital Monograph, the contributors seem to suggest that providers should be focused on enhancements to navigation and collaboration. The anticipated future of the book may not be about augmenting chapter titles or associated metadata, but neither is it about eliminating anything. It’s about the author’s text.
What we think of as front- and back-matter has largely been honed down (over a very long period of time) to the most necessary elements — title page, colophon, acknowledgements, notes, bibliography, index, etc. There might be some finagling of placement or the occasional folding in of a preface with an introduction, but no one seems upset over the status quo of the book as conveyance. Mulling over the JSTOR Labs’s report, I have come to the conclusion that the digital monograph features that are most immediately amenable to being changed or tweaked (insofar as content or platform providers are concerned) are exactly those Topicgraph-style dashboard tools that allow the reader to examine content from more varied distances.
When you look at user profiles and how individual scholars develop their intellectual craftsmanship, you see that their work isn’t primarily performed at a collection level (unless it involves text- or data-mining of an author’s corpus). It’s done at the level of the individual volume, and as one of the principles put forward in this report notes, “The ideal digital monograph should allow different kinds of readers to navigate it in different ways” (emphasis is from the original). The tools of intellectual craftsmanship may shift in terms of device or medium, but the nature of the activity remains the fitting of one new idea into the edges of the greater knowledge framework.
Again, the draft version of Re-Imagining the Digital Monograph: Design Thinking to Build New Tools for Researchers remains open for comment until January 31st, 2017.