Saturday, April 4, 2009

Baby, Bathwater . . . What?

Transformational Times, a recent report from the Association of Research Libraries, provides an "environmental scan" of (among other things) trends in scholarly communication, as seen from the perspective of North America's research libraries. Noting that "scholarly communication practices have now fully entered a phase of near-constant change," the authors predict that the "movement away from print publishing will accelerate" and that "monograph publishing is likely to be curtailed in response to reductions in monograph purchases."

The decline of the print monograph is hardly news (as numerous reports on the crisis in university presses show, this information vehicle has been driving on a downward slope for decades, with sales falling to a quarter or less of what they were in the 1970s [Thompson, 2005, p. 94] ), but the report's prediction of "curtailment" of monograph publishing suggests a finality and futility which does not match up with how I know our monographic print volumes are used.

In other words, there really are situations in which archaeologists, the scholars with whom I am most familiar, still prefer, need, and use print monographs. And not because they are dinosaurs (that's palaeontologists, kids) but for real and reasonable reasons connected with the particular ways in which this particular academic tribe works.

Here are three scenarios.

Printed monographs in the field. OK, I first should admit that although it is true that archaeologists still travel to destinations away from a broadband connection, the places where JSTOR cannot be accessed from an internet cafe are now few and far between. The argument that electronic resources are simply not portable enough to carry into the field is tempting (and perhaps a little bit true still) but it is harder and harder to sustain. Many archaeologists also carry scans of their most vital reference aids on their computers, and there is a trade in these bootleg copies that I have no desire to criticize.

However, artifact specialists in particular still seem to work in ways where a physical copy of key reference works are required. Enter any pot room on any Mediterranean dig, and I think you will still see well-thumbed copies of Rotroff, Hayes, or other reference bibles. When faced with an unfamiliar artifact, the expert will pick one of these tomes up and start to flick through the plate section, working from visual representation to catalogue description to type synopsis. It doesn't seem to be a generational thing. It is simply how artifact specialists do things, and the printed volume still works best for them in this context.

Printed monographs as wampum. Perhaps it is a consequence of all that anthropological training, but "gift exchange" is still a powerful force in a relatively small discipline where personal networks matter, the Kevin Bacon factor is low, and relationships must be formed between scholars of different nationalities, working in very different contexts. Library and personal exchanges are still an important means not only of obtaining resources from countries without easily convertible currencies, but also create institutional and individual links that are vital to obtaining permission to excavate, to forming multinational collaborations, and to confronting shared challenges. Hey, it's always nice to get a present! Especially if the giver is subtly also creating a good old "unbalanced reciprocity" in the process.

Printed monographs for tenure. This is an old chestnut, and a source of never-ending perplexity to good scholars whose scholarship is mostly digital but are then forced to paste their bits and bytes onto a bundle of thinly sliced pieces of wood. Why do tenure committees and review journals still insist on "the artifact"? That's a whole separate discussion and puzzlement to even the wisest. When the Mellon-funded, influential, Gutenberg-e project attempted to catalyze new forms of historical scholarship by funding younger academics to create electronic-only publications, the project managers were forced unwillingly to create flat, print-on-demand, versions of their multimedia creations to gain peer recognition and dissemination. Continued efforts to reward electronic scholarship seem to run into similar problems. Perhaps, for time-stretched academics engaged in administering the tenure system, the existence of a printed product is tangible proof that someone felt the scholarship contained was worthy enough to be invest substantial effort and money in. Perhaps, perhaps . . . . The point is that here also is another area of disciplinary strangeness where the printed monograph remains a gold standard.

None of these examples are intended to suggest that there is no place for electronic resources in archaeology, or that printed monographs are a satisfactory vehicle for most archaeological information. That, as I have suggested elsewhere, is clearly untrue. However, what is clear to me is that, in the words of the wise rhyme, "different people have different 'pinions, some like apples and some like 'nions." Print still has its uses in archaeology, and a nuanced view that recognizes the particular ways that scholars work and the disciplinary (and subdisciplinary) variation in their use of resources, is essential. Rather than throwing out print monographs altogether, or hastening their decline by neglecting to support them (as ARL seems to be doing when they talk of "curtailment"), perhaps the emphasis should be on hybrid publications where the print monograph forms a synthetic overlay, hooking into an array of additional and value-added electronic resources held at stable addresses in a digital repository.

The printed monograph may continue its decline, but policy makers should recognize that its continued refusal to be "curtailed"--at least in some disciplines such as archaeology--is not just another case of those darned scholars being stubborn, but a true reflection of research practice.

No comments: