¶ 1 Leave a comment on paragraph 1 1 It was necessary for me to begin, however, with a somewhat prior question: whether the fetishization of the monograph, or the single-author book, as the gold standard of publishing in the humanities is misguided in and of itself, not simply in the ways that such an obsessive focus obscures other worthy forms of scholarship (most notably the article), but also in its failure to recognize that the book might simply not be the best form for scholarly communication in the first place. Not long ago, I overheard a colleague tell a student that scholarly books are not meant to be read but rather consulted. If this is how we consume research in the humanities — read the book’s introduction for the overall argument; read the chapter that most clearly applies to our own questions for the detailed analysis — then is the production of the book itself no more than a vanity?
¶ 2 Leave a comment on paragraph 2 4 I would argue that the kind of work that has in recent years been done by the scholarly monograph remains necessary to the humanities, regardless of how that monograph is actually read. While the individual chapters of many monographs might have been — and in many cases were — published as free-standing articles, by and large, those books’ introductions could not have been published in any other form. The synthetic work that those introductions do — stepping back from local instances of the phenomenon under consideration to construct a broader landscape against which a large-scale argument can be made — remains crucial to the advancement of certain kinds of knowledge; such synthesis, moreover, requires the weight of the extended analysis only made feasible to this point by the expansive and yet subdividable nature of the book. This is not to say that the only arguments worthy of valorization in the humanities are those that come in large packages; in fact, much of the most important work in literary studies in recent years has been done in articles. I am simply arguing that the monograph remains valuable (and, indeed, necessary) as a venue for a certain form of intellectual work.
¶ 3 Leave a comment on paragraph 3 0 The problem, of course, is that the economics of academic publishing have become insupportable. After the dot-com crash, when numerous university endowments took a nosedive, two of the academic units whose budgets took the hardest hits were university presses and university libraries. And that second factor — the cuts in funding for libraries — represented a further budget cut for presses, as numerous libraries, already straining under the exponentially rising costs of journals, especially in the sciences, managed the cutbacks by reducing the number of monographs they purchased. The result for library users was perhaps only a slightly longer wait to obtain any book they needed, as libraries increasingly turned to consortial arrangements for collection-sharing, but the result for presses was devastating. Consider this, for instance: in the not-too-distant past, a press such as Harvard’s could count on every library in the UC system purchasing a copy of every title they published. Since 2000, the rule has increasingly become that one school in the UC system will purchase a copy. And the result of that is that press after press has reduced the number of titles that it publishes, and that marketing concerns have often begun to outweigh scholarly merit in making publication decisions.
¶ 4 Leave a comment on paragraph 4 4 For a host of reasons, it seems apparent to me that for the monograph to maintain any viability into the future, many things have to change, and one of them is that the academic monograph must move online. Such a move could most easily be slotted into existing academic structures through electronic distribution via PDFs or print-on-demand technologies. However, as Bob Stein, the director of the Institute for the Future of the Book, has suggested, scholarship that is allowed to exceed the bounds of print, that takes full advantage of the technologies available to documents that are “born digital,” promises to have the greatest effect on shaping what the future of scholarship might be. We’ve seen the leading edge of this future-shaping in academic blogging, which has enabled connections and conversations of the sort that formerly developed only at conferences or among colleagues to flourish across greater distances, for longer durations, and among more scholars than ever before.
¶ 5 Leave a comment on paragraph 5 0 What I argued on The Valve, as one stroke in a sketch of the electronic publishing scheme of the future—the “what do we want” question—is that blogging might have much to share with the born-digital monograph. Among the technologies that these digital texts can take advantage of are of course the apparent ones, such as the inexpensive inclusion of illustrations, among them still images, of course, but also audio and video clips, or the use of linking to create both webbed internal structures for texts and to bring external sources within the text’s frame. There are other technologies, however, whose scholarly uses might not be so immediately apparent but that might produce the most radical change. Among these I’d argue that trackbacks, as a means parallel to bibliographies of tracing scholarly discussions not simply backward in time but also forward, might reshape the nature of doing research; that versioning, as a means of allowing a text to continue changing even after it’s been published, might reshape the processes of academic publishing; and that comments, as a means of including conversation about a text within the text, might reshape the nature of peer-review.