Web Publishing and the Monograph

Can we layer new narratives on the old to create better scholarship?

 

Computers and software rely on metaphors to lend meaning to their interfaces.  Clicking, tapping, and swiping help us interact with computers by pairing a familiar action with unfamiliar code and hardware.  Web-based projects often layer their own metaphors on top of these to help us understand websites.  For instance, many digital humanities projects use the museum as a guiding metaphor.  They provide a museum-like experience by offering an archive of searchable sources and create exhibits to help visitors interpret the archive.  The e-book has had a similar, albeit often less imaginative, trajectory.  Many books are presented in a digital form that, for the most part, attempts to mimic the traditional experience of their paper predecessors.  When thinking about how to present scholarship on the Web, I am left with a problem.  I am not all that interested in creating an archive, and I am not interested in simply distributing a book-like object online.  Instead I would like to see something in between these two models–a monograph that allows for a participatory narrative.  Scholarship on the Web doesn’t have to conform to something that has a counterpart in the analog world.  The issue: what might this look like?

The Web allows for alternative narratives

Understandably, many digital projects, especially those with historians as key collaborators, adopt the format of the digital archive.  Digitizing documents and putting them on a server makes archival research easier for others.  The world needs archivists, but the world does not need me to be an archivist.  If I am not interested in creating a digital archive, then what are the other options that I have for presenting scholarship on the Web?

There are many digital humanities projects on the Web that have found something other than the museum metaphor to organize their narratives.  Some scholars partner with digital centers, or strike out on their own, in order to create Web projects to accompany their scholarly work.  These digital projects are often secondary to a book on an academic press or article published in a peer-reviewed journal.  While this might satisfy tenure committees, the dependence on these more rigid forms for a main narrative/ argument and the Web for “extras” is a little limiting.

Instead of thinking of a monograph as a book, the monograph could take on a new form if released on the Web and offer the author a number of advantages to the traditional book.  Scholars could offer their original text and provide to readers ways to find different threads through the text and share those with other users.  As a result, the original research and writing is preserved for those interested in that version of “authorship,”  while allowing for a more “living” text which can change over time as readers engage with it.  Because a digital monograph on the Web could be stored in a database, interesting relationships (possibly generated by readers, or ideally, by readers and author in conversation) would appear over time and make the work more than it was when it was originally published.

To better explain this, I put together a few diagrams.  At the top of the post, you can see a diagram with a black line representing the traditional monograph.  This one has five chapters (black dots).  If we were to put it on the web, with the proper programming and design, readers could engage with the original narrative as well as comment on it.  Additionally, they could create their own alternative narratives about the book not confined to how the book was originally structured.

Put another way, as readers find their ways through the original work, they can add to it while preserving the original scholarship, but without being limited by the original text.

With some programming, we could have readers create their own narratives. The monograph then becomes a conversation that goes beyond the seminar room.

 

Logistics

The idea of creating a larger living narrative around a single text has been floating around for a while.  (Amazon’s Kindle allows for users to share comments around an e-text.)  To put this to work on the Web, if a solution doesn’t already exist, it wouldn’t be the most complicated programming challenge.  For example, if we were to treat this blog as a text, we could figure out a way to have comments not attached at the bottom of the page, but instead attach them to anywhere in an article.  In the same way that Flickr allows users to comment on specific parts of an image, this system would allow for commenting within a text.  Then, we could provide a way for readers/ commenters to group their own comments and form their own mini-narratives.  This would result in a monograph that archives the conversations about it and it could provide a place for an author to interact with readers (both through conversation, and analytical information collected about reader behavior).

With some programming, we could create scholarly texts that go beyond the traditional book.  We could foster conversations, open to people beyond the academy (if that is what the author wanted), and archive and share the alternative narratives readers create naturally when reading a book.  Scholarly Web publishing is going to continue to change for the foreseeable future, and I am excited to see what developers and authors come up with.

External Resources

 

 

About Evan Cordulack

Evan Cordulack is a Web Applications Specialist for Academic Technology. He helps faculty members with Web-based projects related to their research and teaching. He earned his PhD in American Studies at William & Mary in 2013. Find him at http://cordulack.net/

Comments

  1. Gene Roche says:

    Hi Evan,

    Thanks for posting this. I think the idea allowing conversations to form around particular sections of a monograph including students, academics and interested amateurs could have have great impact in some scholarly communities. The bibliography on Electronic Scholarly Publishing is very impressive; there are a lot of smart people thinking seriously about this topic. I think we should see some interesting experiments in the near future.

    • Hi Gene–thanks for the comment! I just saw this link posted by Dan Cohen on Twitter as well: http://www.digitalculture.org/2012/06/01/dcw-volume-1-issue-2-open-shameless-unfiltered/ . The quantity and quality of thought people are putting into digital scholarly publishing makes me wonder if there is, or will be, a gap between theory and execution. Creating new types of texts is engaging to think about, but less meaningful if the end result is hard to use (or trapped behind a pay wall). The digital culture link above made a point about putting “process” ahead or equal to “product” in digital publishing. I suspect that the key to creating a successful digital text would be to break down that dichotomy completely.