Sunday, 23 October 2011

e-books: all deliberate speed

I am teaching a session on e-books and reading tomorrow. I feel as though I have been talking about this for most of my professional life, but that nobody ever listens to the underlying message I try to convey. This might be because it is one that few people really want to hear: things change slowly, humans are not susceptible to Moore's law; we like books and they work very well as reading devices.

I've also been trying to dig some publications out of the back catalogue to put in UCL Discovery, our online repository. I was hoping to use them to write a blog about reading in physical and digital environments. This in itself is an interesting exercise: it proves to me how careless I have been about my publications, but is also an interesting testament to the changing nature of publishing. (Stay with me, the two themes are going to knit up in a minute)

By the time I have finished writing something I tend to feel completely sick of it; I am thus delighted to send it off to the publisher and forget it. I tried to be organised and keep copies on my own machine, but until the days of offsite backup and large external hard discs that was quite hard. You had to burn CDs (something neither I nor my PC could quite seem to manage) which could then not be overwritten, or you had to be selective about copying things from an old computer to a new one as you migrated. I admit it, gentle reader, I was a bit careless in all this; plus I had a couple of hard disks die on me at very short notice. The upshot of this was that I seem to have lost several publications that I wanted to upload.

Until quite recently this did not bother me overly. After all, publishers were there to get the stuff out, so once it was in a journal or book, why did I need a copy? Enter, stage left, the IR and open access rights for the institution to publish your work. All of a sudden I, as an author, have a responsibility to keep my ill-assorted outputs (as we call them in REF-speak). This is so that years, perhaps decades after writing them, I can send them to the IR, who will make them available to the world, who will, obligingly download them like publication was going out of fashion and cite them all over the place. That, at least, is the theory. Well, sorry people, I am a delinquent author, who has lost most of her old conference papers, quite a few book chapters and several articles. I suspect I may not be as uncommon as the IR might hope.

So what, you may wonder, remains for the delectation of the waiting world (or at least UCL Discovery)?

Warwick, C. L. H. (2004). Print Scholarship and Digital Resources. In Schreibman, S., Siemens, R., Unsworth, J. (Eds.). A Companion to Digital Humanities (pp. 366-382). Oxford: Blackwell.

Warwick, C. (2002). Electronic Publishing: what difference does it make? In Hornby, S., Clark, Z. (Eds.). Challenge and Change in the Information Society. (pp. 200-218). London: Facet Publishing.

Warwick, C. (2001). “Rumours of my Death have been greatly exaggerated”‟: Scholarly editing in a Digital Age. In Fiormonte, D., Usher, J. (Eds.). New Media and the Humanities: Research and Applications. (pp. 49-56). Oxford: HCU.

I can extract some themes from what I have found: it's a bit depressing really. What I really seem to be saying- repeatedly- is that change will happen slowly; reading is a complicated business that we understand too little about; and no, the world will not be transformed overnight just because we have a thing called a Rocket e-book. (Yes, one of them is that old- based on a paper that I gave in the mid 1990s)

I predicted in most of these chapters (now verging on digital antiquities) that less would happen, more slowly than a lot of the techno-enthusiasts and commercially hype-driven vendors were hoping for. This is based on my stubborn, if perhaps rather unexciting, insistence that people do not abandon tools and technologies that suit them well in favour of things than are unproven, unwieldy and perhaps even painful to use (reading on a screen is still not very pleasant for most people) just because some geek who is obsessed with the latest gadget tells them they ought to. You can see that this message is hardly likely to attract a lot of fans in techno-land.

It seems clear that, for some reason that I still understand only imperfectly, some people love the idea of overnight technological marvels. It's a seductive dream, but usually it takes a lot longer to happen, and we now know that far from one technology replacing another we just arrive at a more complex mixture from which people choose the tool or medium that suits them best. Artists still use paint, pastel and charcoal as well as making digital installations after all.

Mind you, for all I know I said something completely different in the chapter I seem to have lost.

Warwick, C. (2008). Premature elegies: e-books, electronic publishing and reading. In Hornby, S., Glass, B. (Eds.). Reader Development in Practice: bringing literature to readers (pp. 159-174). London: Facet.

Luckily I shall be able to check when I get to work tomorrow, because the publishers sent me a copy of the book in which it's printed. This tells us quite a lot about the way that publication technologies are colliding at the moment. My attempt to be Open Access is foiled by human carelessness and digital failure, but saved by old-fashioned print on paper publishing.

As I believe I may have said elsewhere, perhaps more than once, 'Plus ├ža change'.