SHARP 2015: Generations and Regenerations of the Book

Montreal 7 – 10 July 2015

SHARP 2015 was a bilingual conference hosted by the Groupe de recherches et d’études sur le livre au Québec, the University of Sherbrooke, McGill University and the Bibliothèque et Archives nationales du Québec. The conference included lectures, keynote addresses, a digital projects showcase, roundtables, lightning papers presented by doctoral students, a poster exhibition featuring the work of master’s students as well as workshops. Over 350 people attended the conference, which was held in three locations over four days. Nick Canty writes this conference report.


Credit: Mel Ramdarshan Bold.

The theme of the conference – Generations and Regenerations of the Book – was highly appropriate to discuss in a round table the future of the academic book. The round table consisted of Nick Canty, UCL, Christoph Blasi, Gutenberg University Mainz, Claire Squires, Stirling University and Siobhan McMenemy, University of Toronto Press. The event was chaired by Alexis Weedon from the University of Bedfordshire. Each participant briefly addressed the topic. Nick Canty outlined the AHRC Academic Book of the Future project, Claire Squires asked how SHARP could consider the question and where the topic sits in the context of Book History before addressing the definitions – what is a book, what should we consider an academic book and how what timeframe should we consider for the future. Siobhan McMenemy set out the publisher perspective with a focus on costs, monograph print runs and commercial imperatives with a sobering thought that a monograph in Canada costs C$ 32,000 to produce. Christoph Blasi saw the topic from two perspectives; bottom up driven by technological advances and the ability for content to be manipulated and distributed in radical grass-roots ways, and top down driven by institutional requirements – such as the UK REF. While we cannot know what the future holds there are some reformist top-down approaches in universities.

The debate was then opened up to the floor and started with a discussion around predatory publishers of the sort found on Beale’s List which try to hoodwink naïve researchers wanting to get their work published. This sort of publishing activity however should be seen as a symptom of the environment and not the cause. There was however a recognition that there needed to be a value shift and a questioning of whether the monograph was appropriate for all disciplines and in particular emerging disciplines – does the monograph give more authority to these as the discipline builds its infrastructure and seeks academic recognition? There are questions here around legitimacy and innovation which have yet to be resolved. Early career researchers may consider publishing a monograph from their PhD but they may achieve more visibility by publishing papers in a journal instead.

The question of funding and money was addressed which was seen as a significant issue for Arts & Humanities disciplines where the cost of Open Access books is prohibitive. Publishers are certainly experimenting with new business models such as the University of California Press community business model which a member of the audience saw as a possible solution here although this initiative is currently funded by the Mellon Foundation only for a limited period. A further suggestion was that university presses might alleviate competition by honing their publishing lists so they (the publishers) are unique. This route is being actively pursued by the Association of Spanish University Presses which is encouraging its members to specialise by discipline. The University of Toronto Press expect Open Access models to reduce profits by 50%.

The functionality of print and digital books was debated at some length with some members of the audience disliking Ebooks which were seen as less easy to navigate than paper despite innovations from publishers allowing users to annotate the content. This led on to a discussion around whether we are witnessing the slow demise of the library as a space for learning and whether students and universities needed a physical space any longer. The University of Toronto built a new library but has changed the name to a student learning space and provides limited access to print books. Ebooks should enable a convergence of content and pedagogy through virtual learning environments although this presents challenges for publishers who risk their business models changing from institutional sales to libraries to selling to the individual student.

The round table concluded with an acknowledgement that the future of the academic book will be shaped by discipline and technology but we are likely to exist in a hybrid print and digital world for the foreseeable future, and at least until there is an institutional recognition of content taking novel and innovative forms.

While the round table finished, the debate continues and follow-up activities will include blog posts for the Academic book of the Future website and a post by forum chair Alexis Weedon. The discussion will be taken forward through numerous and varied activities as part of the AHRC project and specifically during Academic Book Week, 9-16 November 2015.

Academic Book Week aims to encourage discussion around the future of the academic book while looking at how scholarly work in the arts and humanities will be produced and read in coming years. The week will see academic books discussed, showcased and even written across a number of events – notably a launch event with academic publishers at Stationers Hall in London on Monday 9 November and the Opening Up the Book Debate with Kathryn Sutherland, University of Oxford and Marilyn Deegan, King’s College London, while the British Library will host an academic book showcase ceremony and Palgrave Macmillan put the writing of an academic book into practice with a faster publishing model aiming to publish a book in a month.

Through The Academic Book of the Future project the opinions of all those who read, write, sell, produce and use academic books can be heard and the topic will be discussed at the next SHARP conference in Paris in 2016, an issue Claire Squires was keen to see addressed and saw as an issue central to the mission of SHARP.








By the Book 2, Florence 18-19 June 2015: conference report

Project Team member Nick Canty (UCL) recently spoke at the two-day By the Book conference in Florence. This post is a brief report on the conference and some of the major themes and issues that emerged.

The overarching theme for this two-day conference was ‘Books and reading in an age of media overload’ – a big subject. We were fortunate the event was held in the rarefied location of the Villa Finaly outside Florence, which since 1953 has been owned by the 13 institutions which comprise the universities of Paris – this place is no stranger to big ideas.

Villa Finaly, Florence

Villa Finaly, Florence

The conference brought together scholars from the field of publishing studies to examine key issues around the digital transformation of the book, as well as to discuss the developing field of publishing studies. In total, 14 countries were represented, an increase on last year when the conference was first held.

The conference started with the evolution and transformation of reading with three presentations looking at cross-media storytelling and screen reading practices which suggested that the pdf has established itself as an influential format with its own sets of references and screen reading habits and will be likely to influence future devices and reading habits. This, it was argued, is because we see the connection to paper from the pdf. The final session was an analysis of student book-buying practices, which suggested students take little notice of reading lists and recommendations from academics, at least in Nanking, Pisa and Zadar. Of the three countries surveyed Chinese students were far more likely to be reading on smartphones.

Staying with the book, a later session considered the book as a dissemination machine with talks on design in digital textbooks, ebook trends in Poland and software as amplified content raising the question about whether software can be considered publishing. As with all large questions this defied any easy answers.

The session on scholarly publishing had three perspectives – one looking at the use of ebooks in Swedish academic libraries; a talk by Sally Hughes from Oxford Brookes University on how the Met Museum in New York had repurposed their back catalogue to create a free online resource; and a talk from Elsevier on value and exchange in scholarly publishing interactions, referencing John Thompson’s arguments around capital and value and supply chains in publishing.

Two papers specifically addressed editing. Susan Greenberg from Roehampton University talked about the poetics of editing with her definition of editing as a decision-making process – selecting, shaping and linking content – delivering the meaning of a work to its audience, and the art of seeing text as if it is not yet finished. As was pointed out, given the conference setting, this is rather like seeing the statue of David from a block of marble. Dr Greenberg argued that there were many studies which portrayed editors in a negative light, particularly in the 1940s concept as the gatekeeper, a concept now challenged as new media can democratise the field. Katherine Reeve from Bath Spa University made a powerful case for using editors better in publishing companies as they often offer the best ideas to promote and develop content – but they need to be given the opportunity to develop new skills. This was reinforced by Frania Hall from London College of Communication who discussed a recent survey with publishers in the UK which indicated that the editorial function is getting the least attention when looking at digital change.

I gave a paper on book culture, considering books in social spaces – particularly on YouTube – and how vloggers are being picked up by publishers with varying degrees of success. UCL’s Dr Melanie Ramdarshan Bold’s analysis of authors on WattPad asserted we are far from witnessing the death of the author and as pointed out by Professor Alexis Weedon from the University of Bedfordshire there is space to examine author brands as part of celebrity studies.

As with every conference on publishing, the issue of definitions reared its head. Zoran Velagic talked about the problems of definitions and how traditional methods to understand publishing (functional or linear chains as articulated by John Thompson) are redundant in the digital era. He suggested instead four new approaches: media-oriented – looking at what a book does to society; an author perspective – particularly because of the increase in self-publishing; a content view, which considers network participation and asks how capital can be maximised from content; and lastly a producer orientated approach, which looks at the author and content.

Claudio Piers Franco from the University of Bedfordshire introduced us to the concept of the ‘gamebook’ and to what extent different media formats have what might be considered ‘bookness’ in them, and considered the book as a social space, influenced by bloggers coming together in a shared space.

One interesting point to note is that despite various technological developments, the term ‘book’ persists.


Full programme from the 2015 conference available here:


Next year’s By the Book conference theme is audience development.

Italy in Berlin: The Fiesole Collection Development Retreat 2015

Project Team Member Nick Canty visited Berlin last month for the annual meeting of the Fiesole Collection Development Retreat Series. In this post he reports on the Retreat, and some of the emerging themes, issues, and developments with relevance to the academic book and its contexts.

The Fiesole Collection Development Retreat is an annual gathering of those with an interest in the future of scholarly communication who want to share in the debate. The two day conference has no accompanying exhibition or major sponsorship – the focus is on an open exchange of ideas across libraries, publishers and researchers – not always groups that see eye to eye, and often with different vocabularies. What follows is a discussion around presentations which closely relate to the academic book and this research project. But why Fiesole? This lovely town outside Florence was where the original conference was held in 2000 and although the conference now travels around the world, the original title has stuck.

The theme of the 2015 gathering was ‘Competing in the digital space: evolving roles for libraries and publishers’. The conference started with a focus on collection development. The University of Lille outlined public initiatives in relation to HSS research. A monograph in France now sells approximately 300 units and is still seen as central to excellence and part of the identity of the researcher. The CAIRN project ( is looking at improving access to French schools of thought in English and French and has been running since 2005. Some 3000 articles have been translated in HSS. The OpenEdition project is a publicly funded research infrastructure based on a freemium model, moving from plain HTML to added value PDF and epub versions, with two thirds of the revenue going to the publishers and one third to the platform developers. The final French project was Persee, a digital library built by researchers and publicly funded, giving free access to HSS journals. Persee contains over 500,000 documents including books. Half of Persee’s audience is domestic to France and the rest is international. Persee is looking to include grey literature and give access to iconographic material.

The Max Planck Institute, Berlin (History of Science) explained how they have launched digital journals and run virtual exhibitions (Pratolino Garden Project) based on the resources around the construction of the Florence cathedral. The journal ‘Years of the Cuppola’ contains peer reviewed articles based on original documents which detail the construction of the cathedral with insights into the lives of the workers, their pay and eating habits as well as design and engineering elements. These journals were set up and run by the department, generating several questions about resourcing and staff time. We were assured that this publishing operation was run on a limited budget from the department and resourced by an administrator and a student. Future plans for the collections include visualisation of historical data, eg treaties in the fourteenth century based on small world network theory which shows the spread of treaties across Europe and the expansion of knowledge from this.

Lluis Pastor from the association of Spanish university presses (Unión de Editoriales Universitarias Españolas) outlined the work of the association. There are 66 university presses in Spain covering public and private and research institutes publishing over 60,000 books, representing 7% of all publishing in Spain and 25% of all non-fiction titles making the association one of the largest publishing groups in the country. To increase visibility of their work they have launched a portal which gives access to their members’ catalogues ( and over 55,000 documents with plans to open to this to university presses in South America. A challenge for the association is demonstrating quality to research funders, quality agencies and government when there is a belief that commercially published books are of a higher standard than those published by the university presses. To counter this they are encouraging their members to specialise in disciplines and work to attract authors from overseas.

Alison Mudditt from the University of California Press addressed sustainable Open Access publishing based on community approaches practised by the press. The first model, Collabra, charges $875 per article. After Press costs $250 can be paid forward into a research community fund or taken as a cash payment. Their research shows just under half of their respondents take the sum as payment with the rest paying it forward either towards their institution/library fund or future author waiver fees. The Luminos monograph model has a baseline publication cost of $15 which increases with complexity of the content. The author’s institution is expected to contribute $7500 per title. The Press is currently losing approximately $10,000 per monograph and sees the Luminos model as a sustainable way forward.

Other relevant presentations worth mentioning includes that by Charles Watkinson of the University of Michigan Press. Watkinson looked at open access monographs and the incentives for authors. He made the point that while HEFCE, OAPEN UK and others describe the benefits for publishers, funders and libraries they are vague about why Humanities authors would really want to publish an OA monograph. The University of Michigan Press has two Mellon Foundation projects running, one looking at how authors feel about OA books, and a second creating a platform to meet these requirements. The projects are concentrating on the Michigan OA series ‘Digital Culture’, and a white paper with results should be available in September.

Adriaan van der Weel of Leiden university asked how digital the book of the future should be, and identified a clash of interest between reader and author interests. The author interest was intellectual first (scholarly communication, publication) and then economic (tenure, promotion etc) while for the reader intellectual interest, discovery, access and finding information were priorities, and economic issues were around the economy of attention and reading as little and as efficiently as possible.

Finally, Thomas Stacker considered the use of books beyond reading, looking at distant reading (Sosnoski), machine reading (Hayles) and hyper-reading (Moretti). Assuming the necessary requirements were in place (full text, metadata, semantic encoding and open access among others) he demonstrated how analysis tools, specifically stylometry, topic modelling, cluster analysis and voyant tools can be used to analyse a text or corpus.

All presentations are available here:

What is an academic book?

The Academic Book of the Future Project asks the fundamental question… What is an academic book?

This may seem like an odd question, but if we are going to debate the future of something, it seems like a good idea to know what that something is. One definition that can be used for the academic book is that it is a long-form publication, as opposed to a short-form publication like an article, and is the result of in-depth academic research, usually over a period of years, making an original contribution to a field of study.

An academic book can take many forms. In the past, these forms would generally have been represented in print, but increasingly print formats are being accompanied or sometimes replaced by digital versions, and digital formats are becoming increasingly functional. However, other analogue forms like film or photography have also been considered long-form research publications in visual disciplines; and these are increasingly digital.

It is becoming difficult to know, now, what the limits of an academic book are. If our key definition is as above, with only two main characteristics—long form, original contribution, — without limiting what medium the ‘book’ might be produced in, then we have an almost infinite variety of possibilities. From this flow both opportunities and concerns. The opportunities offer academics scope to explore and publish, sources, ideas, analyses, conclusions and data in formats that perhaps better suit their subject areas than conventional publication, and enable collaboration and interlinking of people and ideas as in ways never previously possible. The concerns reside around skills and training for developing new forms of publication; new models of publishing and the economics of the publishing industry; complex networks of intellectual property issues as data, sources and ideas are mashed and mingled, incorporating copyrighted works and creating new copyrights; and the thorny issue of how libraries and other institutions are going to make available new forms of publication in many new and evolving formats, and how these are to be preserved for the long term.

‘Conventional’ forms of academic books


The academic monograph is the cornerstone of academic writing in the humanities. As Geoffrey Crossick says of the monograph:

It provides the length and space needed to allow a full examination of a topic, with the objective of presenting complex and rich ideas, arguments and insights supported by carefully contextualised analysis and evidence. … Writing a monograph allows the author to weave a complex and reflective narrative, tying together a body of research in a way that is not possible with journal articles or other shorter outputs.

Typically, the monograph is in excess of 80,000 words, may be heavily illustrated in some discipline areas like art history, and may have a single or several authors. It will refer to other work on the topic with a dense network of comments and footnotes, and will have an overall thesis that offers an original contribution to the field.

Edited Collections

An edited collection will typically address a particular topic or theme. It will have one or more editors, and a series of chapters addressing that theme which will usually cross-refer. Again, it will offer an original contribution to its field.

Critical editions

In subject areas that deal with written primary sources, the critical edition is a key work of scholarship. A work , which may have a number of versions, is transcribed and the various different versions collated (in print this is done by registering variant reading from a master copy, in digital editions this is increasingly done by offering multiple versions that can be collated using technical means). Explanatory text, notes, glossaries and other ancilliary materials are added to aid interpretation for the reader. Critical editions are significant works that present a great deal of original scholarship.

Exhibition or museum/gallery catalogues

These can be considered academic books if, along with images of the works in the exhibition, they contain analytical material that is the result of research.

Other forms of long-form productions

In disciplines which are not primarily textual, non-textual analogue productions are accepted forms of research output. Research photography and film have been recognised for more than 50 years as research products in areas such as anthropology, film studies, photography studies, performance studies. Take for example the outputs of the Granada Centre for Visual Anthropology in Manchester, which cover sound and performance, photographic and digital media, and art/museum installations (ee In archaeology, the field report, which incorporates maps, graphs, sketches, photographs etc is a significant research output.

The Digital Academic Book

Increasingly, academic books are being produced, published and disseminated digitally alongside or sometimes instead of in print, and print on demand from digital files is now common with most academic publishers. All of the above products are amenable to digital representation, but some things inevitably change when translated or migrated to new formats—and entirely new kinds of output are possible.


Ebooks are usually straightforward representations of print books with some limited added functionality such as annotation, dictionary lookup etc. There are a number of formats available besides the ubiquitous PDF, but they all offer much the same reading experience which tries to mimic fairly closely the print experience. So monographs and other conventional works presented as ebooks differ only in details of presentation from their print equivalents, rather than in matters of substance

Digital critical editions and archives

We group critical editions and archives together as it is sometimes difficult to see the boundaries between them. Like conventional critical editions, digital critical editions present a work in all its significant versions with a great deal of critical and explanatory materials. Where digital editions generally differ from print works is in their ability to present all the witnesses to a particular work, in high quality image form and in transcriptions, and allow the user to perform collations on these using software, and in the ability to present vastly more material than is practical in printed form, with layers of complex interlinking. Two good examples of online editions are Kathryn Sutherland’s Jane Austen’s Fiction Manuscripts ( which incorporates images and transcriptions of all the author’s surviving fiction manuscripts and the edition of Dante’s Commedia by Prue Shaw which collates seven manuscripts of the work ( and is available in online and CD ROM form.

Given the expanded possibilities of the digital edition, these often grow into an archive around a work or a writer, for example the Walt Whitman Archive ( which presents a plethora of information about the poet and his works. One problem of defining certain digital editions or archives as academic books is that they are often deliberately mutable and unfinished, with additions and corrections made regularly, often by a large and interlinked team. Some scholars proclaim this as a benefit, given that errors can be corrected instantly, new ideas, readings or witnesses added at will, but this is antithetical to the kind of scholarship that requires stability of referent in order that scholarly debate can take place around a known and stable body of sources.

New forms of publication

Digital technology, high definition screens, and new critical modes of enquiry mean that our traditional definitions of academic products need radical rethinking. A long-form research output can now take many new forms and constraints upon certain avenues of research and publication are loosened. Take for example, Aphrodisias in Late Antiquity: The Late Roman and Byzantine Inscriptions by Charlotte Roueché. The first edition of this was published in 1989 in print form, incorporating photographs of the inscriptions, transcriptions and commentary. The second, online, edition appeared in 2004, ( now allowing much more commentary and a new approach to the organisation of the materials that strained uneasily against the print format. At the touch of a button the inscriptions can be viewed by type, by find spot, by date, etc.

More recently, see the multifaceted digital publications now planned by Stanford University Press, stimulated by a major grant from the Andrew W Mellon Foundation. (

The first publication by the Press will be Enchanting the Desert by Nicholas Bauch, a book-length examination of Henry Peabody’s 1905 slideshows of the Grand Canyon, which creates a digital prototype for studying cultural and geographical history.  The Mellon Foundation has recently funded a group of university presses in the US to create a shareable, open-source solution for born-digital complementary monograph materials as well as a working model that maximizes the publishing strengths of university presses and the preservation expertise of libraries.

Other publishers are creating innovative models of publication in digital form of existing print materials. The Oxford University Press Oxford Scholarly Editions Online initiative ( is a way of bringing the academic book of the past into the present and the future: major scholarly editions published by Oxford and other academic presses are rekeyed, marked up, and interlinked into complex online editions. Cambridge University Press have developed parallel editions in print and digital form, for instance the Cambridge Edition of the Works of Ben Jonson (

Rather different, but still in contention to be called academic books are books apps like the Faber/Touch Press versions of The Waste Land and Shakespeare’s Sonnets. These integrate manuscripts, editions, critical commentary, and performances and readings to create an entirely new experience of the works presented. In the Sonnets, for example, all 154 poems are performed by an all-star cast including Sir Patrick Stewart, Kim Cattrall, Stephen Fry and David Tennant. The text highlights line by line as each sonnet is performed (

It is not just in the digital world that innovation in book production is happening, but perhaps some of the innovations in physical formats are driven by responses to the digital. Visual Editions, a London-based book publisher, is publishing books, and producing apps and events that are all about making what they call ‘Great Looking Stories’ ( They produce books both on and off the screen that tell stories in a visual way, making for new kinds of reading experiences, and they call this visual writing. Are these academic books? Well, some of them are. Their first publication was a new edition of that notoriously quirky and difficult work, Tristram Shandy, Gentleman, and ‘as the review in the New York Times points out, ‘is filled with visual jokes: a closed door is illustrated by a folded page; beads of sweat by spots of varnish; and the famous “black page” in the original book is replaced by two pages on which the text is over-printed in black.’ How about Composition no. 1? The Visual Editions publication is a re-imagining of a book originally published in the 1960s. The book is the first ever “book in a box”, by French writer Marc Saporta. It is, quite literally, a book that comes in a box with loose pages. Each page has a self-contained narrative, leaving it to the reader to decide the order they read the book, and how much or how little of the book they want to read before they begin again. In many ways, Composition no.1 was published ahead of its time: the book raises all the questions we ask ourselves today about user-centric, non-linear screen driven ways of reading. Composition no. 1 also comes as an iPad app.

And if you think that the printed book is dead, have a look at Arion Press which produces sumptuous books illustrated with original art, and printed on specially produced paper. Their version of The Waste Land retails for $600, and the two volumes of Don Quixote for $2000 each. (

So, over to you—what do YOU think an academic book is? Send us examples of other works that we may not have thought of as examples of the range of what an academic book can be.

My Acts of Reading – Andrew Prescott

Andrew Prescott is Professor of Digital Humanities at the University of Glasgow and Theme Leader Fellow for the ‘Digital Transformations’ strategic theme of the Arts and Humanities Research Council. This guest post is reproduced from his own blog, Digital Riffs, with his kind permission.

acts of reading
In an earlier post on this blog, Sue Thomas asked us to consider where and how we read. She reminded us of Alberto Manguel’s comment that ‘the act of reading in time requires a corresponding act of reading in place, and the relationship between the two acts is inextricable’. Sue reflected that this sense of reading and place is being further transformed by the device we use when we read.

Many of my most vivid memories are associated with reading, from my mother teaching me to read before I went to school, to my father taking me as a child to the children’s library on Saturday morning and the terrifying moment as a first-year postgraduate when I first tried (and failed) to read a medieval document on my own, leaving me wondering what type of career I might eventually have. As it was, I mastered medieval handwriting and went on to work at the British Library. When I first saw the World Wide Web in 1993 (thanks to that remarkable man Tim Hadlow, then the British Library’s Systems Administrator), I immediately felt it would change everything.

But it was really in the practice of writing that I first noticed the changes. By the time I left the British Library in 2000, I was already writing so little by hand that my handwriting (once a beautiful Italic hand) had deteriorated to illegibility, and I found the way in which universities are (still) so incredibly dependent on a bureaucracy of forms completed by hand a shock to the system. In 2000, I used the computer for writing, e-mail, keeping indexes on databases, looking at images, preparing Powerpoints and checking library catalogues, but not really for reading. Even when I was looking at images of manuscripts, I was viewing them more as objects than as texts to be read. It was from about 2003, as more and more academic journals were becoming available online, that I noticed that I was starting to read academic articles almost exclusively on my computer. This was part of a major and largely unstudied shift which John Regazzi has recently described in his book, Scholarly Communications: A History from Content as King to Content as Kingmaker. Humanities academics abandoned a default mode of checking bibliographies first, then monographs, then articles, and moved instead towards going first to journal articles, increasingly identified through Google. The shape, chronology and disciplinary spread of this change requires further investigation, but in my case there is no question that it turned my normal research procedure upside down.

I think this shift towards use of the online article reflects more than the unwillingness of an overweight academic to heave himself out of a comfortable chair and head to the library. It was about the easiest way of finding out the scholarly state of play on a particular subject. Using Google or a word search to find the most recent articles, and then using those articles as a gouging knife to dig out the key issues and literature on a subject is in many ways a more effective process than trying to work out the current state of play from monographs and printed bibliographies, both of which might be considerably out of date. By 2005, I found that, for my academic reading, most of my reading of journal articles was taking place online, but books were still read in the conventional way in bed, on buses, on trains and (for me) above all in libraries. I should perhaps explain that unlike many academics I have never built up a very carefully selected or extensive library. I’ve acquired many academic books over the years, but I suspect that for academic books this was more often than not a means of possessing books or authors I particularly admired, almost as trophies, rather than for use. I have always preferred to work in libraries, and have been lucky enough to either work in libraries or live in close proximity to major libraries, so my working copies of academic books tend to be library copies. I am assisted considerably in this by having been a member for nearly forty years of the wonderful London Library, with its marvellously liberal lending policies.

The next change I noticed was in my relationship with newspapers. Newspapers have always been important to me, as a kind of neutral disengaged space of reading, where I can pretend to relate to the world but actually keep at bay (think of the prisoner Fletcher in Porridge whose reading of The Sun seemed to occupy large parts of the day, as if it was a means of both forgetting the prison and remembering the outside world. Not that I’ve ever felt a prisoner, but it reflects the wonderful way a newspaper can keep your brain in a pleasant neutral gear). My childhood days were punctuated by newspapers: the arrival through the letterbox in the morning; the newspaper vendors in cloth caps and mufflers selling a choice of three London evening newspapers in makeshift shelters at street corners on dark foggy winter nights. Reading a newspaper on the top deck of a bus remained a supreme pleasure for me until well into my 40s. Then it changed: I noticed I had stopped bothering with newspapers in the week (I’ve never been one for magazines). I think the combination of television, radio and the web meant that the pretence of reading it to keep up with current events had been stripped away. I became more conscious that I read newspapers purely as a relaxation activity, and somehow that seemed to be something more appropriate for the weekend. So I read newspapers nowadays on Saturday and Sunday, and will indulge myself with a large number – its one of the high spots of the week – but my relationship with this particular act of reading has profoundly changed.

But I remained stubbornly devoted to the book. I continued to read academic books, and my leisure reading was exclusively in old-fashioned printed book form. In Ceredigion, where I live, the excellent public library service is constantly under threat of cuts, and I like to support it. But I also loved pottering round Waterstones, and my essential pre-holiday preparation was a big book purchase, and as soon as I got on holiday, establishing a drip feed of good books was an essential requirement. I didn’t contemplate a Kindle or an iPad – until last year, I had only purchased one e-book, an academic book that I needed in a desperate hurry to complete some footnotes. Last summer, I was reading Mark Ormrod’s magisterial biography of Edward III in the Yale English monarchs series. Mark’s book is a remarkable piece of historical research, but it is 720 pages long. Carrying it around, with laptop and all the other paraphernalia of modern life, started give me nasty twinges in my back. It was clear that a 720 page biography of a king who reigned for fifty years was not something I could any longer contemplate easily reading on buses and trains.

I had acquired an iPad a few months earlier, and decided that the pain in my back necessitated a switch to an e-book, and acquired Edward III as an e-biography. It was one of the greatest revelations of my life. It wasn’t just that I no longer had to lumber around that huge brick of ink, paper and card, although that was a great relief. The clarity of the screen and the backlighting seemed somehow to make it easier to connect the book and for me definitely made the reading experience more intense. Far from the iPad getting in the way, I seemed to be able to connect with the e-book much more easily. I had the iPad to hand in odd moments when it would have awkward to get the large book out, so I made much quicker progress with the book. Then, after I had flown through Edward III at a rate which thoroughly surprised me, the convenience of getting the next book was just breathtaking. One of the saddest things in life is finishing a good book just as a bus journey is beginning and not then having something to read. But our rural buses in Ceredigion now have wi-fi, and I can get another e-book while the bus is trundling through the West Wales countryside.

My e-Edward III revelation rebooted my reading habits, and seemed to give my reading renewed enthusiasm and productiveness. Eventually, I crossed what I had previously considered the rubicon, and experimented with reading books on a smartphone. I was amazed once again. The phone offered even greater flexibility with no loss of engagement or clarity. The phone meant I could read in situations where previously it was difficult – I could see what a colleague meant when he said that he was able to read a French novel in a rush hour crowd in the tube, thanks to his phone. Indeed, once I began to read on the phone, it somehow came alive for the first time, and it has become more cemented into my life as a result.

Yet there is one fundamental area where my reading practices remain unchanged. My doctoral thesis was on the records of the Peasants’ Revolt of 1381. The three years I spent in the Public Record Office exploring medieval court records and assembling transcripts of the cases were among the most satisfying of my life. My transcription process became very set: a 2H pencil and narrow feint punched 10 x 8 writing paper. I wrote on both sides of the paper and put the archival reference on the top left hand corner of the recto of each page. My notes are probably still one of the most comprehensive collections of materials relating to the revolt, and it was the dream of somehow making all this available online that first drew me into the digital humanities. In a remarkable act of scholarly private enterprise, the legal historian Robert Palmer of the University of Houston has scanned many of the record series I worked on – over eight million images of medieval legal records – which are on a website called the Anglo-American Legal Tradition ( I could imagine nothing I would rather spend the rest of my scholarly career doing than exploring this amazing collection of material, and as a result I’ve recently been transcribing legal records again.

But here’s the odd thing. Although I put it the images on my iPad, I find it very difficult to produce typed notes on them on my laptop, which seems to me what I should now be doing. Although I can read the records fluently enough, somehow I can only process the information in it if I transcribe it – ideally with a 2H pencil, although sadly nowadays I am compelled to use A4 paper. Why do I feel this need to transcribe to process information? Is it because I got into a habit of work and thought at the Public Record Office that I now am locked into? Is it is residual irreducible marker of my digital immigrant status? There are hints that, reassuringly, it isn’t just me. Ségolène Tarte, in studying the processes used by scholars studying papyri, has found that manual transcription is also important for them, and Ségolène has suggested psychological reasons why that might be the case. Younger colleagues at King’s College London who work extensively with digital images report that they also still regard old-fashioned transcription as an important part of their armoury, while Stuart Dunn tells me that pencil and paper are still indispensable tools in looking at old maps.

So, I think that a handwritten transcription will continue to be important in studying materials like my medieval court records. It will be the last bastion of my professional practice that will remain unchanged, although obviously the availability of Robert Palmer’s marvellous AALT resource does mean that I am not now tied to going to Kew to steep myself in this material.

What is striking about this process of reshaping my reading practice over the past twenty years is its piecemeal character. It has been a process of gradual renegotiation of my reading habits, according to taste, circumstance and back pain. A lot of current discussion of digital transformations assumes that it will be a sudden, dramatic and disruptive process. A lot of this rhetoric derives from the management theorist Clayton Christensen (and misinterprets Christensen’s work in my view). The supposed disruption of the music industry by online services is frequently taken as a warning of the fate that awaits book publishers, universities, etc., if they don’t get more switched on and digital. My own experience of changed reading practices suggests that a much more common experience of digital transformation is one of gradually shifting accommodation, experiment and realignment – a piecemeal process, not less profoundly transformative for that, but a quieter slower and more gentle process than the ‘disruptions’ digital enthusiasts sometimes loudly call for, without really thinking about what they are demanding.

Now, its time for bed, and a good book.

This post was originally a guest blog entry for the blog of the Digital Reading Network.

Andrew tweets as @ajprescott.