What’s the Point of the Academic Book? Part Three: Tim Hitchcock

The Project was invited to speak at the BSECS 45th Annual Conference, which took place on Thursday 7th January 2016 at the University of Oxford. The British Society for Eighteenth-Century Studies (BSECS) is soon to launch its own book series, in association with Boydell & Brewer, and wanted to consult with its community on the form that this new series should take. Chaired by Professor Matthew Grenby (Newcastle), the provocatively-titled round table ‘What’s the Point of the Academic Book?’ included views from Project Research Associate Rebecca Lyons, Professor Tim Hitchcock (Sussex), and Mari Shullaw (Boydell & Brewer). The three views from each speaker will be posted in three parts – each perspective being published in its own blog post. The third and final part, given here, is Professor Tim Hitchcock’s. Part One, by Rebecca Lyons, is here: https://academicbookfuture.org/2016/01/25/the-point-of-the-academic-book-part-one/ and Part Two, by Mari Shullaw, is here: https://academicbookfuture.org/2016/01/26/the-point-of-the-academic-book-part-two/

Tim HitchcockTo my undying frustration I find myself wedded to a position that I suspect will be unpopular with this audience. Although I have published some dozen books over what increasingly feels like a rather over-long academic career – most recently a monograph, co-written with Robert Shoemaker, called London Lives : Poverty, Crime and the Making of a Modern City, I don’t much like them. As a technology of knowledge they strike me as both inefficient and outmoded – and as importantly, I think the technology has changed what books are, making them just too fast to be good scholarship.

Having said this, academic books in particular, were undoubtedly wonderful components of a complex technology of knowing – the greatest product of the Enlightenment. And they worked beautifully within that context. The first course I took as a first-year undergraduate in the mid-1970s was in Library Science – and that course introduced me to the beauty of that remarkable integrated system that was the ‘library’ – from union catalogues, to card catalogues, to concordances. And I spent the next twenty years working in libraries of precisely the same sort, reading books. And I gladly admit that traditional footnotes citing hard copy books and journals, work when read while sitting in a major reference library – with those volumes and journals readily to hand. Bibliographies too, worked just fine, when the sources used to substantiate a discussion were composed exclusively of the sorts of materials that could be encompassed within the Dewey Decimal system, or archival catalogue. And Indexes represented an intelligent manual approach to mapping the contents of a single body of text – a mental model (ideally written by the author to guide the eye of the reader) designed to make the text more usable. Chapters and ISBNs, prefaces, acknowledgements, appendices and all the clarity of a well-formed colophon – were a great technology of knowing.

And they worked within a traditional ecology of institutional knowledge creation and dissemination. Academics were (and are) paid by the state and their students, to write books, which are then published either by traditional non-profit university presses; or else by commercial presses whose services are built into a wider academic ecology. And the economics of the publication is then made credible by the investment of university libraries – who purchase ninety percent of the product. A merry-go-round of creation, production and consumption that has gone on its merry way for a couple of centuries; and did the job of making, recording and disseminating knowledge; and enacting the slow form conversation that went with it. And while this system was grossly elitist, highly gendered, inherently Western centric and institutionally racist – it nevertheless had and has many pleasures – some of which the attendees at this conference are here to enjoy.

And, of course, books are also beautiful things. The heft of a heavy tome in your hand; the smell of old leather, and uncut pages; the romance of engaging with knowledge in the same form as it was originally ‘published’, a hundred, or two hundred or five hundred years ago is a wonderful romantic experience – that anyone studying the past needs to have encountered. Like the journey in to the paper archive; reading a book with one hand or two, is a necessary part of knowing how the past worked.

But as a means of acting out and performing the all-important function of the academy – of generating deep knowledge as a background to modern civil society – I think academic books are a bit rubbish. In part they are rubbish because they don’t take advantage of the technologies around us to fulfil the purpose of academic writing more fully. And in part it is because the process of publication and production has in fact taken full advantage of those technologies.

Having said this, when I was originally invited to be on this panel, it was sold to me under the title and question of whether ‘the academic book has a future?’ And while I don’t like it or them very much, my conclusion is that yes, books do have a future. I think there is a continuing – though declining – demand for the technology needed to enact an older and traditional form of scholarship and intellectual authority.   And since books are deeply mired in our still thriving hierarchies of authority, they will remain. As long as books form the easy tick box on a REF assessment; while they stand out on your CV – evidence of seriousness of purpose, and justification for just one more sabbatical – they will remain. And in the process, their publication and sale back to the universities that paid to have them written in the first instance, will continue to provide profits to commercial publishers, and justifications for library budgets, and paid employment for all the people involved in the process of turning an argument in to an object – a hard copy book.

In other words, as long as the requirements of ‘authority’ demand the existence books to evidence the existence of ‘authors’ who can be safely given academic jobs, the ‘book’ – as distinct from long-form writing – has a future. Like neo-liberal capitalism, the greengrocer’s apostrophe, poverty and herpes, academic books definitely have a future. I just don’t think that this is a particularly good thing.

We all know the affordances that the World Wide Web has created. We all use it every day, and if we are honest with ourselves we all know that it has fundamentally changed how we perform scholarship and research; certainly how we write; and how we engage in academic conversations.

Most of us access and read journal articles as pdfs downloaded from Jstor. Most of us access 18th century printed material from Eighteenth-century Collections online, Google books, project Gutenberg or such. Even our primary manuscript research has been increasingly shaped by what is available online – whether that is the Newton Project, the Old Bailey Online, or the endless smaller projects that have sought to digitise the stuff of the dead.

And of course, how we work with text has also changed beyond recognition. All of us use the automated footnoting facility in Word, and most of us use one form or another of citation management, whether that is Nvivo, Zotero or Endnote. We now exchange ideas via Twitter, and generate camera ready copy with Word. And once written, we shunt the whole thing off to the publisher, who runs a quick and dirty bit of copy-editing – aided by an automated search and replace function – over the result, before bunging it into a standard design template, and generating an automated index, before Bob’s your uncle, you have a book, ready for the Autumn catalogue to go out to the 400 American research libraries whose budgets keep the whole financial edifice upright.   With the possible exception of hard copy proofs, there is unlikely to be a single physical artefact of a modern book, from inception to the moment it lands with a thud on your doormat.

And all of this is a problem in part because it is all a bit easy.

Up until the early 1990s, generating a book was a different kind of process. Before email, every revision and every exchange of views took weeks and months; and when all the process of turning manuscript in to print was embedded within a form of production that still marched to the rhythms of the hand press – with proofs and galleys and all the joys of the ink stained fingers – books were not just long-form writing, but a remarkably slow form as well.   Now, you can mimic the appearance of print with a few keystrokes. And the slow scholarship that was required no longer matters. In other words, the important thing about that old style process, producing that old style ‘book’, was that all the components of the system were tied to a single purpose, moving at a stately – ever so slow – pace.

And that pace was important. It meant that a book was a much more significant investment of time, than it has become. It required more hands, and more minds – from local librarian, to author, to editor, to copy-editor, to typesetter, to warehouseman. Each job done by hand; the privilege of publication was necessarily rationed. By contrast, we are now in a situation in which there are both many more books – getting on for one for every academic in the country, every six or seven years – and each one represents a substantially smaller investment of time and resource – both intellectual and financial. This has the benefit of giving voice to more individuals – though it should be noted that the retention of peer review, means those voices are still largely limited by class and race.

All of which is to simply say that academic books have if anything become an ever more important part of that wider academic ecology, which itself has become ever more demanding of book production. But that while the technology of creation – all the joys of Google Search, Word and the Adobe Suite – make these things much easier to publish, that does not mean that the product itself is any good. Or that they continue to serve that underlying function of performing that slow dance of scholarship and public engagement, of deep learning, leading to deep teaching, leading to a working civil society, that the academy, that Universities promise.

This seems to me a real shame. If instead of using the ‘affordances’ of the new technology to simply speed up and cheapen the monograph and academic book, we chose to do something new and different, that nevertheless supported that the underlying purpose of the academy, then we could still have long form writing, and deep thinking, without the ridiculous, Fordist – factory floor – world that has come to characterise the modern academy.

And I really just want to end with a suggestion. I want to suggest that instead of mooning over ‘books’, and worrying about whether the business model of the commercial presses will still be viable in a ten years, we work a bit harder at representing more truthfully the research process we all use.

I had a very interesting experience recently. In writing our last ‘book’, Bob Shoemaker and I deliberately chose to design and implement it as a thoroughgoing ebook. Every quote was linked to the original source, every footnote to the article, or ESTC entry cited; every graph to the underlying spreadsheet and data, and every cell in every spreadsheet to its source. We wrote the book collaboratively in a WIKI environment, and in the end it contained over 4000 hyperlinks. Building on the London Lives and Old Bailey websites, it was conceived and delivered to the publishers as a vertically integrated research archive and commentary that was designed to serve all the purposes of traditional scholarship. The publishers had contracted to deliver this ebook, but when it came to submission – when we delivered the manuscript in Mobi and Epub formats – with floating formats, and colour images – they turned around as said, that they could only accept a book in a flat Word format. In the end, after some two years, that book is now out – and though an e-version exists, there is no provision for libraries to buy it, and it looks and works like a slightly up-market pdf.

The reasons for my failure in this instance is a long story. But the point I want to make today is that it is entirely possible to represent modern scholarship in three dimensions – to capture that journey in to the literature, and Google Books, and online primary sources – and to create a ‘book’ that fully reflects that journey. Even if we believe that long-form writing is important (and I am in three minds), let’s make books that take advantage of the online, that serve the real function of footnotes, and stop making books that feel like the dead husks of a previous generation’s form of scholarship.

And along the way, let’s think again about the institutions that tie us ever more tightly in to this ever more demanding system of production for production’s sake – this increasingly Fordist dystopia of academic publication for the mere purpose of demonstrating productivity, over purpose.

I do believe the academic book has a future, and in my imagination a bright and positive one – as a graphic novel, and a Twitter stream, as a curated collection of blogs, or a string of comments and responses. I believe we can continue to think deeply and engage deeply, as long as we simply keep in mind the limitations of the technology, and the purpose of our thinking. I very much hope that academic book in its weird, flat, 19th century form is dying. Long live the book.

[Editor’s Note: For more on the alternative academic book, check out the Call for Content for BOOC (Book as Open Online Content) – an exciting new collaborative project between The Academic Book of the Future and UCL Press: https://www.ucl.ac.uk/ucl-press/ucl-press-news/call-for-content-booc]

A Storify of live tweets from the panel is available here: https://storify.com/AcBookFuture/what-is-the-point-of-the-academic-book

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