Not-books

In a recent post I wondered aloud what the new existence of information formats that were “not-books” meant for the academy. At that time I did not either spell out the varieties of format that will become not-books nor really even tentatively explore what differences they make for the academy. I did not do so because the former is still in motion and the latter calls for a longer discussion than I can tackle in this space. I will explore neither of those things here but rather relate an experience that sheds light on both.

Last summer I participated in a workshop dedicated to one not-book platform being developed by USC.  Undoubtedly many more such platforms will be developed, compete, and finally shake down to several standards. This platform was using us as guinea pigs or excuse me, as a focus group to see how selected scholars from different stages in their careers (dissertation writing graduate students all the way to established scholars) would use this platform in projects of their own choosing. The developers of this platform are still in the alpha stages and made many changes on the fly as we pushed and pulled the platform in various ways in our projects.  Several outside speakers came in to talk to us ranging from a scholar whose project built on a preliminary version of the platform would be tested market by a university press to several preeminent scholars who spoke about the attempts to get non-book projects launched and funded at their schools, opposition they may have faced and finally building coalitions and centers to get things done.

One of the things that became clear is that much of the opposition they face is from those who think that only books have real scholarly value and books should be the metaphor in which the academy thinks. Perhaps this is because their own success, living and self worth is wrapped up in the production or measuring of success in books or articles (mini-books?). These people occupy the positions of power in the academy controlling resources, acclaim and merit.  They see things like the “digital humanities” as an upstart newcomer impinging on their control , sucking up funds and resources from outside the academy, and threatening to render obsolete the skills they have spent a lifetime honing. Digital scholars have to understand this and honor it if any “rapprochement” is to be made with them. They have to demonstrate the merit of digital scholarship in the terms and according to the standards that these earlier scholars have developed.

There is a second problem that digital scholars have to confront however and that is the metaphor of the book. A few of my workshop colleagues were pursuing projects in which the gain from doing it as a not-book was not as much as it could have been.  For example the new platform makes it easy to create a text illustrated by multimedia examples. There is some gain over a book in doing this: you can use many more kinds of multimedia and you can have the multimedia shape presentation or learning in many ways . Most members of my workshop were trying to do projects which would not have been possible in a book.  Several of them were using video or audio examining what these collections were telling us about topics as varied as growing up in “the Valley” in California, a predominantly Mexican section of Los Angeles, dance performances in Latin America, movies of the Algerian revolution, the U.S. Department of Defense’s nuclear testing, a Mexican visual artist, and an international religious organization. My own project was based on interactivity that allowed the learner the freedom to choose what topics to investigate, how deeply to go, and the speed /time needed to work through it while at the same time providing some pre-made “paths” through the jumble of archival material. My colleagues and I were using these non-books were using them in a a way that books could never have done. Sure books could have “described” some of the things about which they were concerned, but not-books allow users to “experience” those things, have direct or mediated access to them, make new connections between things and to demonstrate the points they were making. As long as we think in terms of books several ways of communicating knowledge, teaching and learning are closed off to us. When we think of not-books several new ways of presenting, new topics and perhaps new audiences open up to us without losing the benefits that books provide.

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