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Problems of Transition

Module by: Hilary Ballon, Mariet Westermann. E-mail the authors

Scholars repeatedly raise several basic concerns about electronic publication that must be addressed before the discipline can move forward. Art historians will not—and need not—surrender the pleasure of slowly reading a beautifully illustrated book, a pleasure not likely to be replicated in the electronic realm. Some worry that the electronic medium imposes, as it were, a cognitive style that favors scanning over close reading and modular information over holistic argument, but the growing range of electronic materials will gradually refute this technologically determinist position. Scholars in this study were prepared to believe that distinctive benefits will emerge from electronic publication, but flagged practical, professional, and disciplinary concerns summarized below. Their concerns may be understood as problems of transition in developing a new framework of scholarly communication.

Image Quality

Image quality is a decisive consideration in art history publishing. While image quality will require constant vigilance, continuing technological improvements highlight the advantages of digital illustrations over their print analogs in terms of color, interactivity, and quantity. Color is a rare luxury in scholarly print publications (exhibition catalogues are the exception), but color in online publications adds no extra cost. Zooming and panning tools make it possible to illustrate an argument with a thoroughness rarely achieved in print and fulfill the art historian’s singular desire to enlarge details and move through buildings. Of course there are costs, still unquantified, of online illustration programs, but costs are not based on the use of color, resolution, or digital enhancements such as magnification. As a result, electronic publications promise sumptuous, richly detailed, and interactive color illustration programs unparalleled in print form.

Copyright Access

As set forth in Part II of this report, the regime of copyright restrictions has limited access to digital images and thwarted the potential to reach an expanding audience on the World Wide Web. Electronic publication requires still more than access to images. For the truly dynamic way we propose to use images, licenses must grant liberal terms of use.

Owners of works of art and images of them have a strong attachment to the integrity of the works, and copyright licenses habitually insist that images may not be cropped, rotated, animated, or manipulated in publication. When the heuristic value of interactive images to the works of art can be shown consistently, this objection can be expected to fall away.

Credentialing and Academic Quality

Because born-digital publications of monographic scope do not now exist in the field, it is not clear if they would be accorded the same weight in tenure review as a printed book. Nevertheless, the perception that digital publications will be considered lesser contributions threatens to create a self-reinforcing resistance to such initiatives. This situation is likely to be changed by two dynamics. First, the increasing capacity of digital print-on-demand may succeed in erasing our awareness of a manuscript’s electronic origins. E-books will cease to seem a breed apart and join a continuum of books with varying production values. A 2006 University of California study envisioned this outcome: "because print on demand technology makes it possible cost effectively to produce high-quality print versions of rigorous reviewed digital-first or digital-only publications, print publication is no longer a meaningful surrogate for peer review and quality of imprint."1 Second, the desire to publish will cause scholars to readjust their expectations in response to market forces: shrinking opportunities to publish traditional print monographs will send authors to other publishing outlets. If the discipline creates properly vetted and enhanced electronic alternatives, they will attract top manuscripts and the publications will have credibility with tenure committees.2 Our proposal to use the journals as a portal seeks to mitigate professional concerns.

Cost

There are warnings that digital monographs are not cheaper to produce than books. Clifford Lynch points out electronic monographs displace costs from the publishers to the scholar and site manager: "the economic dilemma of the monograph has not been solved, but only rearranged."3 The maturing of technology and software, the refinement of authoring tools and image viewers, and the development of other scalable models promise to reduce costs. Art history stands to benefit from the trailblazing organizations that found a sustainable e-publishing model by using a subscription-based distribution system and aggregating related material.

Preservation

The permanent preservation and access to digital materials is a major concern of scholars who regularly experience the complications of upgrading software and migrating data to new formats. The launch of Portico, an electronic archiving service supported by the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, Itkaka, the Library of Congress and JSTOR, in 2005 offers a large-scale solution to this structural problem. As news of Portico’s work permeates the scholarly community, the question of preservation and permanent access will retreat, and migrating data will become a standard operation of cyberinfrastructure.4

Versioning and the Historiographic Record

Wikipedia’s model of collective authorship combined with the ease of revising digital files gives rise to a fear that the updating of content, or versioning, will blur the historiographic record and obscure the stance of a scholar at a given moment in time. Claims that electronic publication will nullify the concept of the author and integrity of the text, in an extreme variant of intertextuality, have a futuristic quality and suppose that technology determines outcomes. It is the case that scholars can determine applications of the medium that best serve their goals if they take charge of such efforts. Hypertext, as an example, is well suited to capture historiographical shifts and register disputes over dates, attributions, and interpretations.5

It is instructive to recall the contested authority of printed books in early modern Europe. As Adrian Johns elaborates in his study of seventeenth-century England, books originally had weak claims on truth in part because of the multi-step publishing process, which subjected the author’s manuscript to manipulation by type setters, printers, binders and other players.6 A print culture was formed that regulated a potentially permissive process and established the authority of the text and credibility of the author—a project so effective that teachers must now teach students to question the truth of the printed word. The early modern history of print culture underscores the power of social structures to shape new forms of communication and suggests that scholars have an important role to play in the still formative phase of electronic publication.

Footnotes

  1. See the report on Scholarly Book Publishing endorsed by the University of California Academic Council on April 19, 2006, at http://www.universityofcalifornia.edu/senate/committees/scsc/monogrpahs.scsc.0506.pdf. Comparing the print and online versions of his book City of Bits, William J. Mitchell noted the distinction between the precise design control over the printed book and the variable appearance of the online version depending on browsers and other factors. He casts the issue as producer control of the book versus user personalization online. This formulation suggests a future scenario in which the customer/reader will have a choice of different production standards and price points when downloading online material. See Mitchell, "Homer to Home Page: Designing Digital Books," in Rethinking Media Change: The Aesthetics of Transition, ed. David Thorburn and Henry Jenkins (Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, 2003), 209-10.
  2. The first Gutenberg-e authors have been tenured on the basis of electronic monographs. See Patrick Manning, "Gutenberg-e: Electronic Entry to the Historical Professoriate," American Historical Review December 2004, 1505-26.
  3. Clifford Lynch, "The Scholarly Monograph’s Descendants" (1997), http://www.arl.org/scomm/epub/papers/cliff.html.
  4. See http://www.portico.org/. Defunct links remain another problem, but software tools are available and will presumably evolve to clean up link-rot, William J. Mitchell’s colorful word. Also see the Draft Report of the ACLS Commission on Cyberinfrastructure for the Humanities and Social Sciences, November 5, 2005, at http://www.acls.org/cyberinfrastructure/cyber_report.htm.
  5. ARTstor is developing a capacity to update image cataloguing information and track what James Shulman calls the "archaeology" of the image. On the use of hypertext in presenting literary variants, see Luca Toschi, "Hypertext and Authorship," in The Future of the Book, ed. by Geoffrey Nunberg (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1996), 169-207.
  6. Adrian Johns, The Nature of the Book. Print and Knowledge in the Making (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1998).

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