Audio-Visual Resources and Academic Books of the Future

Steven Dryden is a Sound & Vision, Reference & Technical Specialist at The British Library. The British Library is currently undertaking a major campaign called Save Our Sounds which offers the opportunity to question the connection between text, sound, and moving image in media-rich content research. In this post he invites researchers to take part in a survey on how they use audio-visual resources in their work.


Steven Dryden

In early 2015 I was fortunate enough to catch Rebecca Lyons giving a presentation on The Academic Book of the Future Project. Aside from the fascinating debates about what constitutes ‘academic’, what constitutes a ‘book’, and what an ‘academic book’ might be in the current research landscape – I was struck by the potential applications of the project to the collection I am vested in at The British Library: sound.

The British Library sound archive is an extraordinary collection of over 6.5 million recordings dating back to the birth of recorded sound in the early 19th century. If you were to listen to our entire collection back to back, 24 hours a day, seven days a week, with no holidays or breaks, it would take you over 140 years – plus the collection is growing daily! It is a unique research resource, comparable only to the Library of Congress sound collections in the USA. Find out more about our collection here

Sound recordings are the closest thing to time travel that we have as a research tool. Take for instance this audio clip of JRR Tolkien visiting a tobacco shop. We are instantly transported to 1929 when the recording was made, and it is easy to feel that you are being addressed directly. The time that has passed between then and now seems to vanish.

Listen to a conversation between Prof. A Lloyd James and J.R.R. Tolkien, recorded in July 1929: Early spoken word recordings – English Conversation: At the Tobacconist’s

The Save Our Sounds project

Many of the British Library’s recordings are under threat of disappearing as technologies change and some formats begin to naturally decay, and in response to this challenge the Library has launched a major campaign to digitise our historic sound collections.

As well as enabling us to future-proof our collections, the Save Our Sounds campaign is a unique opportunity for us to take stock of our role as audio heritage archivists, cataloguers, librarians, and collectors. Part of this includes considering access and the ways in which our collections are used by researchers. It is here, at the crossroads of research & engagement, that linking up with The Academic Book of the Future Project becomes very exciting.

At the moment, if an ‘academic text’ includes audio or visual resources, these tend to be included as DVDs, CDs, and perhaps even CD-ROMs (yes, they are still floating around out there!). As the technological landscape of the world changes, the ability to access and play CDs, DVDs and most definitely CD-ROMs will become increasingly limited. From the initial survey work that has been done for the Save Our Sound project, the main preservation concern is not that the recordings themselves are at risk of disappearing, but the obsolescence of the playback equipment.

So, how will audio-visual resources be included in academic books of the future?

In current and emerging contexts in which content is increasingly digitised and media-rich, how will the ability to incorporate audio-visual research directly into research outputs change the way in which these outputs are created, accessed, and referenced?

We hope that working with The Academic Book of the Future Project to address some of these questions will offer important insights into how researchers are using sound and moving image resources, and highlight common issues and concerns across disciplines.

If you are or have used sound and/or audio-visual materials for research please complete our short survey. (This survey will remain open until Easter). 

In due course a symposium/workshop will be arranged to discuss the findings of the survey. We are keen to encourage dialogue between publishing houses, app developers, and researchers. We hope the symposium/workshop will address and encourage ways of working together to fully explore the potential of audio-visual components in the academic book of the future.

Find out more about Save our Sounds at Save our Sounds, follow @BLSoundHeritage for live updates from our digitisation studio, @SoundArchive for tweets from the sound team, and use #SaveOurSounds to join the conversation on Twitter.

Open Access: A Personal Take

In the second of our blogs this week on OA, following on from Open Access Week last week, Alastair Horne gives his personal reflection on the challenges ahead…


I have a few reservations about Open Access.

In some respects, that’s hardly surprising. After all, I work for a big publisher – not, admittedly, an Elsevier, but still one of the world’s largest university presses, one of those not-for-profit organisations whose deep differences from the likes of Elsevier are too commonly elided in the recurrent syllogism that ‘Elsevier is a publisher; Elsevier is a profiteer; publishers are profiteers.’

On the other hand, it’s also very surprising indeed. I’m an instinctive socialist who broadly supports concepts like Labour’s long-abandoned Clause Four, who still regards ‘the common ownership of the means of production, distribution and exchange’ as a laudable aspiration, and who would happily vote to renationalise the railways, for starters. On that basis, why wouldn’t I support a system that seeks to liberate scholarly research from private enterprise and make it freely available to those who need it?

A third factor in this complicated relationship with open access is that I’m also a humanities researcher manqué; an English graduate with an unfinished PhD thesis (which celebrated its twentieth anniversary last year; there wasn’t a party). As it happens, the debate on open access that I attended last Friday – the prompt for all this self-indulgent soul-searching – took place at Cambridge’s Divinity School, where I sat the last of my undergraduate exams in English twenty years ago, and made such a singularly bad fist of writing essays on twentieth century poetry that I imperilled my funding for that PhD.

But enough about me – for the moment, at least – and let’s focus on the debate itself, held under the auspices both of the global Open Access week and Cambridge’s own Festival of Ideas, an annual series of events ‘celebrating the arts, humanities, and social sciences’. Under the chairmanship of Stephen Curry, described as ‘the world’s most amiable open access advocate’, four academics debated whether ‘society can afford open access’. Representing the humanities (in practice, if not necessarily in theory) were Dr Daniel Allington, researcher in Digital Cultures at the University of the West of England, and Professor Peter Mandler, President of the Royal Historical Society; representing the sciences (again, in practice rather than in theory), were Dr Theo Bloom, Executive Editor at the BMJ, and Dr Danny Kingsley, Head of Scholarly Communications for Cambridge University.

Given the festival’s focus, it was perhaps unsurprising that the debate tended more effectively to question whether the humanities and social sciences, rather than society itself, can afford open access. Mandler’s key point – and one that I found largely persuasive – was that since the principles of open access weren’t designed for humanities research, the humanities should therefore not be bound by them. Open access was developed first to solve problems encountered by creative artists, and then by scientists; not those experienced by humanities researchers. The Finch report that informed subsequent UK government policies on open access, he told us, was drawn up by a committee that lacked any representation from the humanities. Any subsequent accommodations that policy-makers had ultimately made towards the humanities had been hard won through vigorous intervention.

One such accommodation could be found in politicians’ reluctant acceptance of Green open access as a legitimate alternative to Gold. Much humanities research is unfunded – Allington insisted that almost all of his own had been – and even the funded research was supported by budgets that were tiny compared to those supporting scientists. When Bloom pointed out that research conducted by an academic whose salary was paid by their university was still publicly-funded, even though it was not directly supported by a funding body, Allington responded that many academics in the humanities are either part-time or paid only for teaching, and as a result, have neither the cash nor the moral imperative to pay the article processing charges required to make their work available through Gold open access. Curry’s suggestion that making humanities research open access might somehow attract more funding seemed, to my mind, somewhat optimistic.

Allington and Mandler also raised concerns about the creative commons licenses required by many funding bodies in order for researchers to comply with their open access policies. Allington pointedly described the author of these licenses, Lawrence Lessig, as essentially a Google-funded advocate, and expressed strong objections to having his work remixed and reworked without his consent. Though Bloom insisted that CC licenses’ requirement for attribution meant that Allington need not worry about being misrepresented, I found Kingsley’s response more persuasive: the open access movement needs to acknowledge that different disciplines have different requirements for CC licenses, and – presumably – work with researchers to create the new licenses needed. Mandler’s assertion that he’d been told by politicians that different disciplines could not have different licenses was worrying.

Discussion turned to the possible impact on journals and societies – and specifically the good work they do in other areas – of losing the money they make from subscriptions. Bloom questioned why that work should be funded through the money they make from research, and was answered pragmatically by Mandler, who pointed out that that was where the money was. Asked by a member of the audience why journals even needed to exist, Kingsley responded that individual researchers tended not to be interested in self-organising (though the development of initiatives such as the Open Library of the Humanities by Caroline Edwards and Martin Eve suggests that this is thankfully by no means universal).

The attitude towards publishers was thankfully more nuanced than is sometimes the case, despite – in a statement whose subtleties I undoubtedly missed in the rush of live-tweeting – Kingsley at one point suggesting that large publishers belonged in the same category as tobacco companies. The panel agreed that with open access creating greater transparency over what publishing actually costs, it was harder now for publishers to justify profits of 30-40%. Bloom was happy with profit being reinvested by publishers, but not with it leaving the system to enrich shareholders. (And on this we were in rare agreement.)

So, where does all this leave me, and the concerns I expressed at somewhat self-indulgent length at the start of this piece? The debate rather brought them into focus: though I support Open Access in principle, I fear the consequences of it being over-rigorously applied to the humanities and social sciences. I’d have liked to hear more about some of the initiatives that – rather than insisting that the humanities and social sciences will be just fine under a model that ignores their particular requirements – are actually trying to find ways to make open access work for these disciplines. (Though the Open Library of the Humanities was briefly mentioned in passing early on, this could have been discussed at more length, and there was no mention made of, say, Knowledge Unlatched’s experiments in funding monographs, or UCL press.)

I’m also still a little concerned about the zeal with which some advocates pursue open access. Perhaps I’m just over-sensitive, but even in the faultlessly polite debate I saw on Friday, there still seemed at times traces of an inflexible rigour that worried me: the belief, however civilly expressed, that the opponents of open access must be either misinformed or exhibiting bad faith. In his opening speech, moderator Stephen Curry asked whether publishers might be dressing up fears about profit margins as concerns for sustainability; in the discussion on funding, there seemed a marked reluctance to believe that the money just isn’t there in the humanities. More often, though, there was an open-mindedness that reassured me. Kingsley’s insistence on the diversity within the open access movement – that though many people round the world supported its ideals, they disagreed on how to achieve them – encouraged me to believe that ways will be found to find models that will work for the humanities and social sciences, and that publishers will have a role to play in them.

Alastair Horne runs webinars and a blog for language teachers at Cambridge University Press; he tweets as @pressfuturist, blogs occasionally at and is currently working on a novel set in a Parisian cemetery.

This blog post can also be found on Alastair’s own blog, here:

Open Access and Academic Publishing

Independent information services professional Ian Lovecy suggests that there are a number of questions – philosophical and practical – which need to be answered before open access could be a sound and sustainable method of academic publishing. This post makes no attempt to answer them, but rather to identify them and perhaps open up some of the issues involved to discussion.

What do we mean by “open access”?

Time was, I could walk into my public library, ask for a book or a journal article, and if they didn’t have it they would obtain it for me through inter-library loan; that was open access to information, and it died in the ‘70s and ‘80s. In those decades, access remained open, but subject increasingly to charges, primarily to cover the administrative costs of the service. Increasingly, requests became subject to a form of censorship, requiring proof of need or (in Universities) a tutor’s signature.

Today we have the Internet, and access to much of the information on it is available to anyone with access to a computer. (This is theoretically anyone in the UK since computers are available in public libraries and Internet cafés, although opening hours, location, costs, line speed and computer literacy may all impose limitations.) Not all the information is available free of charge, but subject to questions of privacy and confidentiality, public interest, security and government policy on access, it is available to all.

Two questions relating to academic information immediately become apparent:

  • Do we mean free open access?
  • Do we mean open access to the entire world?

Equally, in the case of inter-library loans, it was understood that the material was governed by copyright legislation; frequently, especially in cases where material was provided as a photocopy, recipients had to sign a declaration that they would observe copyright. Items published on the Internet are, or at least can be declared to be, subject to the same legislation, but the enforcement is even harder than it is with library books (and I am sure many lecturers have used the occasional copyright photograph in their lectures without seeking permission). In theory, enforcement should be easier in the case of electronic access, since such access can be traced; in practice, with multiple access by people in several different jurisdictions control is effectively impossible. A further question is therefore:

  • Do we want to put restrictions on the use of the information?


What are the reasons for open access publishing?

A frequently-heard justification is that since public funding pays for the research the results should be publicly available. This is at best a slightly tenuous argument – even after the passing of the Freedom of Information Act there is still a great deal of publicly-funded information to which the public most decidedly do not have access. It can, in any case, apply only to a subset of research, primarily that funded wholly by the Research Councils. However, the current intention is that all material, if it is to be included in the REF, must be available on open access.

In the past, there has been an underlying assumption that all research undertaken in Universities is publicly funded; this is no longer tenable. Even ignoring the existence of entirely privately-funded Universities, much research – particularly in medicine, biochemistry and the social sciences – is jointly funded by research councils and either charities or business (or sometimes both); there may be restrictions on the amount of information which can be published because of commercial considerations. Many academic posts in the Humanities are now funded entirely by student fees – surely that cannot count as public funding?

It should not be forgotten that there exists also a group of independent researchers – retired academics, former students who have gone into non-academic work and self-taught members of the public with a keen interest in a specific topic. None of these is likely to be submitting material to the REF (with the possible exception of the first group) and they are not therefore under pressure to use open access publishing; they will, however, be affected by some of the consequences of it considered below.

There can be few researchers who do not wish their work to be read, appreciated and cited by others, and for many who publish in the form of journal articles this is indeed the only reward they have. It is understandable that they may feel exploited when they see the price charged for the journals in which they publish; it is even more understandable that institutions resent paying a high price to buy back the results of work which they feel they have funded. Is the correct answer to this problem making the information available to all? What about monographs? – in this case the authors may receive a (small) financial reward in the form of royalties. Are they to be denied this? After deciding what we mean by open access, the next question to answer is:

  • Is there any moral or philosophical justification for insisting on open access publishing?

What might be the practical effects of open access publishing?

The practical effects can be considered under five headings: the value of information, effects on conventional publishing, location and language of publication, universality of access and costs.

The value of information

A professor (of English literature, no less!) once told me there was no need for subject librarians because “all students had to do was use the Internet to find things”. I put the following fairly specific search into Bing: “studies in Shakespeare’s Henry VIII”. That is, of course, one of the most minor of the plays; the search returned 23,500,000 hits. The first 20 included a Wikipedia entry, several references to Spark notes, summaries and quizzes, one text, one (Spanish) production, and several references to A study of Shakespeare’s Henry VIII by Cumberland Clark. Which is doubtless an excellent book; but a similar search in Birmingham University Library’s catalogue shows in addition, in the first 10 items, books by Larry Champion, Alan Young, Sir Edward German, Tom Merriam, Maurice Hunt and Albert Cook, a text with a preface by Israel Gollancz, and a production by the Royal Shakespeare Company. Some of the books are on detailed aspects of the play or its authorship. It is a manageable list, and represents the selection (you could call it censorship) by a group of scholars over a number of years of books which say something worth reading about the play.

That selection is made in a number of ways, such as the reputation or place of work of the author, the reputation of the publisher, reviews in newspapers and professional journals. There can be dangers in all of these: an author may have a reputation as a maverick and be scorned by established academics; just because an academic doesn’t work in a Russell Group university it doesn’t mean he or she is not good; Mills and Boon might publish a scholarly book; reviewers may have personal axes to grind. However, behind all of this is the publisher: it is the publisher who publicises the book, sends around lists of forthcoming volumes to libraries and academics, sends out review copies. Going back one step, publishers’ editors decide which books to take on, and there can be problems here for those with radically new ideas; the existence of a flourishing, competitive industry is one way of minimising the risk of censorship.

In an open access world, the radical and the maverick are in less danger of being stifled by the establishment; but they have an even greater risk of being lost in the mass of irrelevance which comes pouring out of a search. Only their institution might help to refine the search, and even this might not assist given the lack of sophistication of most search engines: adding “published by Universities” to my search had some effect – it reduced it to a mere 9,300,000 hits. So a vital question in relation to open access is:

  • How do we sort the wheat from the chaff?

Effects on conventional publishing.

If open access publishing of monographs became the default option – as it might if open access became a requirement of the REF – the effects on the academic publishing industry could be severe to catastrophic. Much would depend on a question asked above, and explored further below: is open access to be free access? Electronic publication is not necessarily free – e-books are often cheaper than printed copies, but librarians would question whether even this is true of e-journals – but payment is made by somebody in some way. If, however, open access were to mean free or cheap access, academic publishing could become unsustainable; even today margins are small and there is often cross-subsidy within major publishers from more lucrative parts of the list. University presses are often subsided by parent institutions, usually as part of institutional marketing.

A significant decline in the number of academic publishers would (as indicated above) greatly affect the way in which published research was publicised. It would also leave independent scholars outside the university system with little or no choice of where to submit a manuscript, thus potentially reducing the amount of information and scholarship to which the world has access.

However, despite talk of “webs” and “clouds”, it must be remembered that the Internet is a very physical thing at heart: it needs servers which hold the information. Storage of digitised material is becoming ever cheaper; costs of maintenance of equipment are not. Servers sometimes go down – ask any customer of the Royal Bank of Scotland! – and the more information on a single server the more inconvenience caused when this happens. One way of minimising this problem is to scatter the information on a number of machines; another is to duplicate it on more than one server. Might publishers become involved in this? Would every university want to dedicate machines and staff time to such an operation? Who would publicise new monographs, or persuade people to review them? These questions could be summed up as:

  • Would there be a place for academic publishers in an open access system?

Location and language of publication

In the age of the Internet, research collaboration across national borders is common; however, with the important exception of the United States commitment to open access publication is not. For institutions and scholars in many countries, publication in respected journals which are not open access may be important for prestige or career purposes. Hitherto in the UK, this conundrum has usually been solved by the open access “green” version of a paper (the penultimate draft), leaving the final version to be published normally; the “green” version is acceptable to the Research Councils (and so far to the REF) as satisfying their conditions.

If it is decided that all material for submission to the REF must be available as open access, a further problem arises. Researchers in linguistics or the literature of other languages and cultures frequently publish in non-English languages in journals published in the relevant country. Open access journals in, for example, Mandarin or Sanskrit, Latin or even French, may be hard to find! Open access publication of monographs might be possible, but probably only through a UK publisher – depending on the answers to questions above; This could affect the breadth of the reception of the item, which as well as diminishing any royalties which might still be available could significantly reduce the impact in respect of a REF submission.

An important question to be considered if open access academic publishing is to become the default expectation is:

  • Are foreign language publications to be exempted, and if not what provision is to be made for them?

Access to “Open access” and its costs

As suggested above, “open access” is usually interpreted as free access, but this is not without cost. At present universities have been willing to place science articles on local servers at marginal cost; if humanities publishing and monographs are added, the costs of maintenance over the next fifty years will probably be less than marginal in research-intensive universities. Moreover, there will be a need for more sophisticated search software, akin to that in use by libraries – and as librarians will confirm, such software is not cost-free.

Moreover, the costs of indexing may be increased. If articles are not collected into journals, indexers will have to search over a hundred sites for potential material. This could be carried out by software, but again such software would have a cost; and there would be the added problem that software working by gleaning key words from titles or full text may not take account of the context. (It sometimes happens with human cataloguing – I have seen a book on Keats entitled The mirror and the lamp classified as optics!)

Alternatively, material (at least articles, although not monographs) could be collected into online journals. This could ease the problems of refereeing and therefore selection of useful material, although it would bring back the possible problems with the current system of refereeing – which have recently included the costs in terms of time if not of money. But online journals would need editors and some level of administrative staff – publishers, in other words – and there would be costs involved. Who would pay them? If it is expected to be users, we are back to the question of whether open access is to be free; and if it is paid for by institutions we are likely to find those who do not belong to such an institution disenfranchised.

There are also hidden costs in terms of the use of materials. Screens and readers are improving all the time (although that is also a cost – I don’t need equipment to read a book) but many people still find prolonged use uncomfortable. Hyperlinks can facilitate the movement from index to relevant page, but activities which require having more than one volume open at a time – comparing two editions, for example, or reading a critical work in conjunction with a text – can be awkward.

A book published 400 years ago is (generally) as easy to read as one published four days ago; computer software is upgraded frequently, and although upward compatibility is often included, there are sometimes step changes – Windows 10 has provided examples, and many word processing systems confine upward mobility to perhaps the last five versions. In my research I used a number of books and articles published 100 years previously, and probably little-used in between; how accessible will material published today be in 100 years, and what will be the costs of keeping it accessible?

There are a number of questions arising under this heading:

  • Will there be a need for new indexing and/or searching software, and if so who will pay?
  • Will in-built upward compatibility in software cope with material published a century earlier, and if not how will upgrading be managed?
  • If there are costs in respect of open access which are born collectively by institutions rather than by the end-user, will some potential end-users find themselves without access?
  • How can the problems related to potential inconvenience of use be overcome?


What do you think of the issues and questions raised in this post?

Are there others?

Get in touch below!

Acts of Reading: when, how, and where do academics and their audiences read in the digital age?

How academics and their audiences read is a topic inextricably tied in with the future of the academic book. On the 24th September 2015, Professor Andrew Prescott, Dr Bronwen Thomas, and Professor Miri Rubin, chaired by Dr Sara Perry, discussed Acts of Reading as part of The British Library’s ‘Digital Conversations’ series of events. The event was held at The British Library and co-organised by The Academic Book of the Future project, and was prompted by a previous blog post on a related topic by Prof. Andrew Prescott.

The panel considered such questions as: Have acts of academic reading changed in recent years and are they still changing? What formats and devices are academics reading in and on, and how has this affected their research and writing? What is the future of academic reading, and what consequences will this have for the academic book? How have these changes impacted public consumption of academic research and might this portend for academia and the public in the future?


The panel, as captured by a talented attendee! (© Lisamaria Laxholm:

Migratory reading

Dr Bronwen Thomas (Bournemouth University) began by outlining new opportunities that digital reading offers. She uses email and her university’s Intranet not only for collecting and aggregating links, but also for sharing them with her students. Reading becomes an act of community, of social connection and discussion, but the act of reading is also put off until the links themselves are clicked.

Digital reading offers a greater array of options for academics than hard-copy reading alone. “Even if a book is on my shelf, I am more likely to find a specific quote using a digital search, e.g. on Google Books.” But conversely, as Thomas highlights, citing Naomi Baron’s Words Onscreen (which she brought with her to the event – in hard copy format) people tend to do more re-reading in print. The reasons for this are various, although the main one for Thomas is that with physical books there are less likely to be Internet-related distractions, e.g. Twitter, Facebook, emails.

Some researchers have also argued that when reading a physical book there is a greater sense of the internal topography and structure of the book, with readers having more of a sense of themselves within the space of the book, as well as an awareness of external space, and a memory of the situations of reading: How much is left of the book? Where was I when I read this – on the bus, in my office, in the bath? Thomas asks: what counts as reading? Does it finish when you finish the book, or does an insight strike you 5 years later?

Thomas described herself as a migratory reader – migrating between different kinds of modalities and media. She referred to the “PowerPoint state of mind”, an argument often cited with reference to digital reading. It describes a fragmentary style of reading; dipping in and out of texts. This type of reading, Thomas suggests, can occur with both physical and digital texts, but is arguably being heightened by an increase in digital reading.

You can read Bronwen Thomas’ reflection on the event here:

Academic ebooks: pdf hell?

Prof. Andrew Prescott (University of Glasgow, AHRC) reflected on the issue of reading in blog posts before ( and after the Digital Conversations event at The British Library (

He agreed with Thomas’ assertion regarding the sense-memory of physical books, recalling “one cold Christmas in the 1960s”, when he had received a book as a gift and taken it back to his warm bed to read. Prescott went on to explain why and how he had gradually turned to digital reading, because of the great advantages it offers: ebook devices are lighter to carry than most hard-copy books; there is immediate access to content through downloads, and faster access to recently published books. He described himself as an “e-reading convert” but expressed dissatisfaction with the cost of academic books – he often still has to consult academic books in a library, rather than buying his own copy or e-version. “We need,” he suggests, “an academic text version of iPlayer.”

But has there been a transformation in reading practices, prompted by digital text? Prescott suggests that he doesn’t use his phone or device to do anything that he didn’t already do before: “Pleased as I am with ebooks, they are very very boring products.” Academic ebooks have not, he argues, capitalised on the advantages offered by digital technology for scholarly purposes. For example, it would be incredibly useful, in a history ebook for instance, to link directly to the primary source it refers to – a digitised version of a medieval document, a database of coins, a virtual tour of a long-gone city. Instead, ebooks tend to be glorified pdfs, and fairly flat. “My dystopian view of the future,’ says Prescott, “is that journals will consist of pdfs of journal articles.”

He then went on to say: “this is partly why I got into the Digital Humanities. I want to see ebooks that encourage me to read more deeply.”

Contextual deep reading

Prof. Miri Rubin (Queen Mary University of London) referred to the linguistic turn of the 1990s and the intertextuality of texts, and how this is a useful frame through which to consider academic reading: everything that humans produce and how we communicate with and understand each other is coded in texts. Rubin explained how we have become “supple, multi-skilled readers of text” by learning to deconstruct texts and to acknowledge the importance of context.

Nowadays scholars undertake a great deal of research via databases and searches. Often, we aren’t physically embedded in reading contexts – we are no longer immersed in journals in the stacks, or flicking through pages of physical text, accidentally discovering other information in the process. Rubin asks: Does this new reading change the way we understand content? She gives an example of a colleague who was researching the 1975 referendum. Due to copyright issues, he had to look through the original articles in physical newspapers, rather than viewing them in a digital context. Seeing them embedded in their original contexts, surrounded by the adverts and other articles on the page, the referendum articles took on new meanings and relevance. This is not something that can always be fully appreciated when using digitally-reproduced sources.

But, Rubin asks, what about reading poems, or cult or sacred literature? Are there inherent issues in reading the Lord’s Prayer, for instance, in a fragment? Rubin suggests the “notion that the reading act is not complete until it is complete.”

The academic book of the future: born digital?

Bronwen Thomas recently wrote a textbook that included links to relevant web pages, but she admitted that this is an “unsatisfactory way of trying to connect. The links will probably be dead by the time the book is published.” Seeking permissions for images can also discourage the kind of engaging, interactive e-text that Prescott would like to see. Despite this, Thomas thinks that the academic book of the future will be born digital – conceived as digital right from the outset, and including audio-visual content, links, and interactive features. Rubin added to this, suggesting that academic books of the future should be able to create a completely holistic reading experience for research and writing, for example when researching the Magnificat, the music itself could be playing in the background via an ebook.

On the other hand, Thomas suggests that the idea of the ‘digital native’ is a “mythology” – her students wanted paperbacks, because they thought e-reading devices to be ugly and like something their parents would use. “Books,” Thomas suggests, “are becoming retro, like vinyl, and going into bookshops is visually exciting, so books still hold charm and appeal.”

Measurement and evaluation

Sara Perry highlighted that there are strong links between the analogue and digital, and our ways of reading. Perhaps, she suggests, there are “larger concerns around the sharing economy: bureaucratic shackles, politics, longer-term engagement, personal safety, the divides between communities, surveillance and data analysis, and corporate control.” She questions how acts of reading are affected by the academic contexts in which we find ourselves, for example academics are subject to the REF, the impact agenda, metrics, etc. She cited one of her PhD students who has created video games to advance archaeological research, deploying them alongside the trowel or camera as a toolkit of the archaeologist. This student wants her examiners to literally play her thesis, rather than read it, but she is being forced to battle with the assumption that the PhD should be a monograph. Hence, the game will probably become an appendix at the end of her thesis, eliminating the potential and possibility of it.

AHRC funding encourages people to collaborate and create new book forms and potentially new reading experiences, but whether that is a REF-able output is another matter. Andrew Prescott explains that someone submitted a totem pole to the recent REF, and it was accepted. But whether this is encouraged within the frameworks of individual institutions and their structures is another question. He sees this it as a problem that we have in terms of the structure of knowledge, which “is now being driven more by Wikipedia than academia.”

Finally, there were some thought-provoking questions from the audience:


“I usually forage – for a particular quote or piece of information, but when I find a book I enjoy, I tend to buy it and read it for a different reason. What do you think of re-reading, and what academic books do you re-read and why?”

AP: Vivian Hunter-Galbraith’s book on using Public Records: it has haunted me since I was about 20. Now it is only available in a 1960s reprint. I constantly refer back to it. I would probably buy the ebook, like you said, to find a particular quote more quickly.

BT: For me re-reading is literary re-reading, like reading Jane Eyre 50 times. I re-read it every time I teach it. I don’t read ‘academic’ books in that way.

MR: I do the foraging and the researching but then if like it I buy it and re-read it more fully.


“If you could have access to everything EVER published on something the size of a matchbox, would you say yes?”

AP: It’s not something I would turn down if you offered it to me, but I would point out that this idea is a deception, because in the foreseeable future I don’t think it could exist. Take the example of Tristram Shandy: Sterne went to great effort and expense to insert a DIFFERENT piece of marbled paper in every single one of the first copies of this book. How would you recreate something like this?

BT: Absolutely not: It would be meaningless! Going back to the idea of foraging, part of the process of reading is the discovery, the creation of my own library of content – it would be a meaningless mess of everything.

MR: Yes, absolutely!





Why Do We Write?

Today’s guest post is by Anne Welsh, Lecturer in Library and Information Studies, University College London. Anne considers the implications of writing in a vocational discipline where theory and practice are integrated; how writing in these areas are considered within evaluation processes such as the REF 2014; and asks what this might mean for the academic book of the future in vocational disciplines.

“It’s not the people who write the book who make the future. It’s the people who read the book and implement it.”

Ela Szubarczyck

Practical Cataloguing in practice at RUSI Library

This statement on my Facebook page was sparked by a question about influence on Twitter last weekend. It got me thinking about the somewhat bigger questions of why we write, and whether there are any distinctive qualities about vocational disciplines that make writing and action linked in a visceral way.

I’m very interested in the pedagogical underpinning of vocational disciplines within the academic setting. The fast-approaching centenary of our department (the oldest library school in the UK) has taken me to a place in my research exploring not just our history, and Library Education’s move from learning-on-the-job to study-at-university, but, more generally, the concept of Professionalization and what Watson (2002) has described as the reinvention of certain occupational groups as professions. In a forthcoming book chapter (Welsh, 2016), I argue that university became the natural location for Library and Information Studies because, as Jarausch (2004) has highlighted with regard to other professions, “it was not expertise as such, but its certification which created cultural capital” (p. 367).

Be that as it may, vocational subjects integrate theory and practice, and, from the publication of Dewey’s (1916) Democracy and Education onwards, it has been recognised that this balance requires active learning in the classroom; that learning by doing is as important as learning by reading. Of course, Dewey and subsequent theorists have had an influence across the board in Education, not solely in vocational areas, but there’s a logic to the idea that when we are educating professional groups, there is a direct link between what happens in the classroom and what happens in the workplace. Elsewhere (2013) I’ve described how in my own field we are working within Kolb’s (1984) dynamic process that shows experiential learning occurring within an equilateral triangle with corners labeled “Education”, “Work” and “Personal Development.”

From this point of view, our aim as educators is to draw on each of these areas to progress students through the hierarchy of Bloom’s (1984) taxonomy: from knowledge, through comprehension, application, analysis and synthesis to the highest order of learning, evaluation. Significantly, in vocational subjects, the end result of a student’s university education might be that they continue to further academic study, but it is likely, in most cases, to be that they progress into the workplace to apply the knowledge they have gained ‘in the real world.’

This means at least three things with regard to ‘the academic book of the future’ in the context of vocational disciplines:

  1. Academics have the potential to directly impact their field through their books (and other outputs).
  2. There is competition, both for academic publishers and for authors who are academics, since experienced practitioners are also publishing.
  3. In order to achieve (1) there are effects on (2) with regard to such important concepts as subject-matter (the books commissioned by publishers), diction (the dry, dull language favoured by some sectors of the Academy will not reach as wide an audience as engaging language) and pricing (monographs that outprice their market will not sell either their pages or their ideas as widely as books that do not).

In brief, the academic book of the future within vocational disciplines has a wide audience that is not only ready-made, but is made, in some respects, by the authors themselves. For example, former students who learned in class from my book Practical Cataloguing are now emailing me asking when my next book Cataloguing and Decision-Making in a Hybrid Environment will arrive with them, because as practising librarians, they have the book on order to help them with their current role.

More importantly, I think that in vocational disciplines authors have decisions to make based on our motivations. For REF2014, I was advised not to include Practical Cataloguing despite its having sold thousands of copies. The REF panel in our area is very wide, and it was suggested that people who have never catalogued might not see the academic value of a book that discusses the seismic shift in the intellectual models underpinning our international standards and its predicted impact. More recently, a senior colleague in the Faculty told me that the book was regarded as “knowledge transfer” rather than research, “because of the series”. “It’s not in a series,” I said, and he responded, “You know what I mean. Facet – they publish for librarians.” Biting my cataloguer’s tongue (Facet is a publisher, not a series), I smiled as he continued, “But it’s excellent for impact. If you didn’t put it in for REF2014, maybe it can be an impact study for REF2020.” Because a ‘secondary market,’ beyond the couple of hundred academics who might read a monograph, is, in academic terms, “public.” Because a book on an apparently dry topic that I wanted to be read by busy professionals needs to be written in a style that makes them want to keep on reading, and that’s not the language of the Academy. Because a ‘manual ‘that instructs people how they might do something can’t possibly involve research, can it? Not even when it’s the first to look at a new international standard and interpret it and theorise how it might be applied.

And that brings me back to my opening comment. The question that triggered all of this asked simply “Who are your most influential new thinkers about the library of the future?” The answer, for me, was simple: “All of the students. Not just the ones here [at UCL]. It’s the quieter majority that will make ‘the library of the future.’” Because, in my eyes, they will. Writing a book or giving a conference paper (or having thousands of followers on Twitter) may be “influential”, but only if people in the world take up an idea and put it into practice. Without that, all our writing, all our speaking, all our thinking, in fact, goes nowhere but the library shelf (or university repository).

I can touch some of the things my students and former students have implemented when I walk into their libraries. Colleagues at the Bartlett can literally touch the walls and ceilings and floors their students have designed. Slade colleagues could even bid on the artworks their alumni exhibit (if the academic life pays them enough money). And when we write, it’s not solely for the few experts in our own fields, it’s not solely for current students, it’s for the whole professional group to which we belong. My senior colleague’s right about me, but for the wrong reasons. My books aren’t Academic-with-a-capital-A. Not because I’ve missed my market: let my research articles take care of the REF, I say. My books are written for anyone who catalogues who wants them, and specifically for anyone who wants to change cataloguing to think about and mull over, and build something new in the real world. For the opportunity to do that, I’m very grateful to my publisher, Helen Carley at Facet, and I’m even more grateful to the wider cataloguing community.

I don’t know if what I’m finishing at the moment is what you would consider an ‘Academic Book’, but I reason that as long as universities are running vocational courses like the MA Library and Information Studies on which I mainly teach, books for librarians will be a part of my future. As a non-publisher, I suggest that, more widely, books for the professions that sell in their thousands are, perhaps, as much a part of ‘The Academic Book of the Future’ as monographs for academics that sell in the hundreds … or even the tens.


Image: RUSI Library, with thanks to Ela Szubarczyk, who appears in the photo. If you are interested in a cataloguing internship at RUSI, please email in the first instance.


Bloom, B.S. 1984. Taxonomy of Educational Objectives: The classification of educational goals. New York: Longman.

Dewey, J. 1916. Democracy and Education: An introduction to the philosophy of Education. New York: Macmillan,

Kolb, D.A. 1984. Experiential Learning: experience as the source of learning and development. New Jersey: Prentice-Hall.

Jarausch, K.H. 2004. “Graduation and Careers.” In A History of the University in Europe. Volume III. Universities in the Nineteenth and Early Twentieth Centuries (1800-1945), ed. W. Rüegg, 363-389. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Watson, T. 2002. “Professions and Professionalism: Should we jump off the bandwagon, better to study where it is going?” International Studies of Management & Organization 32(2): 93-105.

Welsh, A. 2013. “Experiential Learning in Historical Bibliography.” In Ambassadors of the Book: Competences and training for heritage librarians ed. R. Mouren. Berlin: de Gruyter. 147-162.

Welsh, A. 2016. “‘Expertise – Certification – Cultural Capital’: The education of librarians in the UK.” In Educating the Profession: 40 years of the IFLA Section on Education and Training ed. M. Seadle, Clara Chu and Ulrike Stöckel. Berlin: De Gruyter. (In press).