To imagine the future of the monograph, we probably need to better understand its current state.
As many readers will be aware, Cambridge University Press (CUP) and Oxford University Press (OUP) recently collaborated on a study, the goal of which was to find out, “how (their) authors, readers, and researchers really see the monograph.” The study was prompted by a couple of apparently contradictory observations: on the one hand, “for many years, we’ve heard that the days of the monograph are numbered, that it is inaccessible and old-fashioned, that the world has moved on.” And yet at the same time, “we see ever more monographs submitted to publishers and a growing online usage of monograph materials” as well as “significant and meaningful research communicated through the monograph form.” So these two venerable monograph publishers — one the oldest and the other the most prolific publisher of scholarly books — decided to temporarily suspend the “long-established rivalry of (their) two great institutions” and work together to try to understand the conundrum of the modern monograph.
Key findings of the report include the preeminence of monographs for humanists, with 95% describing monographs as “very or extremely important” to “the overall body of knowledge in your subject area.” As readers, those surveyed overwhelmingly found monographs to be as important as journal articles (with social scientists rating articles just a bit more important). And respondents agreed that the volume of high-quality monographs is increasing. Do scholars read monographs as regularly as articles? Humanists said yes; social scientists, not quite as much. All rate monographs as a key resource for research, literature surveys, and teaching.
The report was based on almost 5,000 responses to an emailed survey. The largest discipline represented among the respondents was history (18%), followed by literature (11%), with 19 other disciplines (and “other” also represented). This was a geographically limited group, with 41% of respondents from the United States, 26% from Europe, and 22% from the UK. It was also dominated by respondents at the middle or later career stage, with those careers defined as academic (“almost three-quarters of the sample [73%] indicated their career stage as ‘Senior lecturer/ Associate professor’ or a more senior level”). Nearly two thirds had authored between 1 and 5 monographs. The details of the report and its methodology can be found here.
An early copy of the report was made available to two of our Chefs: Rick Anderson (Associate Dean for Collections & Scholarly Communication in the J. Willard Marriott Library of the University of Utah) and Karin Wulf (Executive Director of the Omohundro Institute of Early American History & Culture). After reading it, they decided to share their thoughts about the report, and affecting scholarly books, in the form of a conversation here in the Kitchen.
Rick: I found this report quite interesting, but what intrigued me most were the questions it raised in my mind to which there aren’t obvious answers. One of the more disturbing questions that I found myself considering was prompted by this observation in the report: “Respondents found it difficult, sometimes even catastrophic, to imagine their fields, research, and careers to date without monographs.” The question I found myself asking in response was “Is the marketplace for monographs sustainable? And if not, is catastrophe inevitable — or can/should we start doing something very different now, in order to avoid it?” When it comes to the monograph’s survival, the fundamental question isn’t going to be whether the monograph is relevant or valuable, but whether effective models exist to support it. After all, a project or scholarly product can be highly valuable and still not feasible. Karin, what do you think — does the monograph have a future, and if so, is there something we should be doing differently now in order to secure it?
Karin: I’m in the position of having all my biases confirmed in this report! Monographs are an essential part of the ecosystem in my field (history). In some ways I appreciate that the report as contributing to a baseline understanding of the monograph’s role. We have seen lots of exploration around monograph sustainability, including projects that explore the role that e-books might play. But establishing how the monograph works for researchers seems like an awfully important predicate, and one that hasn’t previously been treated in this depth. I wonder how university libraries will respond to this? This study certainly suggests something different from other accounts, including Dan Cohen’s article in the Atlantic last year about how book use is declining in libraries. I look at my mid-career colleagues who are book consumers, and lots of us buy books in the course of our research. I have wondered how the easier access to buying, especially cheaper second-hand copies, is keeping us in books, but not necessarily in books from the library. Did Cohen’s article resonate with your experience, and how did you square that with this survey?
Rick: Cohen’s article provided additional confirmation of research I’ve done in recent years, which has shown an increasingly precipitous decline in the circulation of print books in North American research libraries since the early 1990s. There no longer seems to be any doubt that printed books are increasingly sitting on shelves untouched in those libraries, and of course this has set off a self-perpetuating cycle: we see that books are being used less, while (as Cohen also points out) journals are proliferating and their articles are being used more and more. At the same time, journal prices are rising much faster than book prices are, and library budgets are stagnant at best. This leads us to buy fewer books in order to preserve journal subscriptions; the fewer new and current print books we buy, the less books get checked out. Given all the intervening variables in play, it’s hard to tell how much of the ongoing decline in book use is caused by organic changes in the way people do research and how much is caused by the decline in library book purchasing, but what we know for certain is that usage of journals remains very high and that our budgets are increasingly strained. This leads me to ask one of the most disturbing questions that the CUP/OUP report raised in my mind. The authors observed at one point that respondents to their survey had noted that the “value of the monograph lies not just in the discovery and reading but also in its creation… it is an organizing principle of research.” I have to wonder — with some trepidation — whether this suggests that perhaps some monographs should be written, but should not be published, or at least not published in the traditional way. What if a monograph is so abstruse that there’s truly no external market for it, but the writing of it is a genuinely valuable exercise that furthers the author’s research agenda? Do we need to consider the possibility of entirely new modes or manifestations of “publication” for those kinds of monographs — especially given the importance of helping authors advance their careers?
Karin: I think some of that is what John Sherer is getting at in his Sustainable History Monograph pilot at UNC Press. He’s not arguing that books don’t need to be published, so no need to direct any rotten tomatoes at John, or at me for mentioning that project in conjunction with Rick’s question! But what he is pointing out is that some monographs can be published without the expensive bells and whistles that some of us have come to see as basic hardware — such as a designed cover, and marketing. I think what that kind of model respects is that plenty of people still want to read books, and plenty of people still want to write books (of course not everyone, even in book discipline like history, and career requirements aside). What some of that and other models suggest though is that libraries are really not a consequential player in the book market, but also as I think you and Dean Blobaum showed, that’s not new. It still strikes me as a sad and bad thing, because I also think it’s changing or has changed our relationship to the library if it’s not the place we go for books. What do you make of that, as a librarian and as a reader?
Rick: That’s a great question, Karin, and I hope the rotten tomatoes don’t start flying my way when I say that if the question is “Is the library still the place we go for books?,” the answer depends on what we mean when we say “the library,” and what we mean when we say “go to,” and what we mean when we say “books.” Let me (quickly!) try to explain what I mean: first of all, I think our conversation so far has really been in the context of academic libraries, and obviously they’re used quite differently from the way public libraries are. My impression is that people still use public libraries in very traditional ways (browsing the stacks for books to read) as well as in newer ways (Internet access, software, etc.). In research libraries, usage patterns are very different. Even when our most important offering was a very large collection of print books, those books were used more often as databases than as true reading material; they were more likely to be mined and interrogated for discrete pieces of information than to be read from cover to cover. But the reality is that while the printed codex was (and still is) a great platform for cover-to-cover reading, it was (and still is) a really terrible platform for interrogative research. Another problem with print books is that they can only occupy one physical place at a time, which means that in order to get access to a printed book’s content you have to go to where the book is. That’s a pretty serious problem on a university campus. So by shifting book content away from print and towards ebooks, the library is still providing an important and high-demand research function — we’re just doing it better and more efficiently than we used to. If that means that fewer and fewer people are browsing in the stacks, that may constitute bad optics for us, politically speaking, but that’s our problem, not our patrons’. If they’re not in the library because we’ve stopped demanding that they be in the building in order to have access, that’s a win for them. But now I’ve drifted away from our real topic, which was monographs, and into a different one: monographic formats. In fact, we’re buying fewer monographs in ANY format these days, partly because we’re trying desperately to avoid canceling journal subscriptions and partly because the monographs we do buy don’t get used much, even when they’re ebooks. But if it’s okay, I’d like to shift focus for a minute and ask your take on another point that was mentioned in the CUP/OUP study. At one point the authors observed that some of their respondents “valued the focus of the (monograph) format on a niche area, others the ability to give a broader picture.” These struck me as diametrically opposite responses, and I was surprised that the report offered no discussion or exploration of what that might mean. Any thoughts?
Karin: Wait! I want to stick on that other point for a minute. (And I’m going to resist the urge to contest your depiction of the codex as a “terrible platform for interrogative research”!) You’re so right about the nature of the library, the mode of access, and the object accessed. There is a way in which libraries are spaces of genuine nostalgia for a kind of knowledge acquisition experience that may be represented by the physical book in that physical space. This week’s essay in The Atlantic about how college students want libraries to do basic and old-fashioned things is, I suspect, a product of just this. And we know from the work you did and others have done and Dan Cohen described, that the data show students not using books. So maybe they just want to hang out around books. But also — maybe that’s not as new as we think. In her new book, What We Talk about When We Talk About Books, Leah Price argues that books and a mode of absorbed reading (or really any prescribed mode of reading) have always been more fiction than fact. I know I’m pouring lots of things out on the virtual table we’re virtually sitting around to chat, but I worry that the kinds of responsive market behavior you’re describing is only responding to the things we’ve been measuring. And maybe we’re measuring the wrong ones. Maybe people want to hang out around books in order to… want to read. But to go back to your point about whether books serve niche or general subject needs, I can absolutely see how both are true and necessary. I’m going to risk a generalization here and say that the journal article just is not as flexible an instrument as the book. The CUP/OUP report is supposed to be about monographs (the longform analogue of a research article, making a specific point). But I wonder whether the respondents were thinking about the many ways we (here I mean humanists) use the book form. We write big synthetic work, shorter teaching work, monographs that are very specific, monographs that are quite capacious in subject, and everything in between. Maybe what we should really be asking here is whether the “monograph” is a useful term anymore. I know it’s one that apparently kills sales! Thoughts?
Rick: That’s a really good question. To the degree that these books are still being written by a “single hand,” I think the term continues to apply, at least technically, regardless of the proliferating ways in which it’s being used. And while I’ve seen several different attempts in recent years to revolutionize the monograph, and most of them have yielded interesting results, none of them — as far as I can tell — has yet had a systemic impact. But getting back to your question about the potential disconnect between what the investigators meant when they said “monograph” and what the respondents meant when they answered, I think you raise a very good possibility: that CUP/OUP were asking questions with one particular meaning in mind, and that their respondents were replying as if they were asking much broader questions. That doesn’t mean the responses are useless, by any means, but it raises intriguing possibilities for a follow-up.
I feel like we could continue this conversation indefinitely, but we’d better not. Do you want to offer some concluding thoughts?
Karin: Agreed! This compelling subject could keep us in conversation for a long time.
I think the CUP/OUP study is interesting and important in at least three dimensions. It tells us that these two major presses care enough (or are concerned enough — either by data or discourse around) the fate of the monograph to try and establish a baseline understanding of its significance as a scholarly form. It also shows us that — library use data aside, and even cultural analyses of reading aside — when asked, a group of scholars express robust support for the importance of reading and writing monographs. And finally, it reminds us of how much we don’t understand about reading, writing, and their relationship to research and knowledge production. The metrics we have (citations, downloads, page views) can guide us, but they can obscure as much as they illuminate. So it seems smart to me to set the values expressed by scholars alongside them when we think about what scholarly communications is going to fund, or not.