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Introducing the Humanities Digital Library

This week sees the launch of the Humanities Digital Library, a new open access  publishing platform for scholarly books. The Library is an initiative of the School of Advanced Study (SAS), led by the Institute of Historical Research (IHR) and the Institute of Advanced Legal Studies (IALS).

At launch the Library includes monographs in history, law and classics. Over the coming months it will grow to include books from other disciplines researched in institutes across the School. External partners are also participating in the Humanities Digital Library. They include the Royal Historical Society whose ‘New Historical Perspectives’ book series will appear in the Library, published by the IHR.

Open access (OA) – the provision of free, accessible and re-usable scholarly content – is now an established feature of humanities journal publishing. As part of the next Research Excellence Framework (REF), scheduled for 2021, eligible journal submissions must be available open access via one of two routes: ‘gold’ or ‘green’.

Attention is now shifting to open access for other publishing formats, notably the scholarly monograph. Given the monograph’s importance to the humanities, it’s a shift prompting understandable concerns and debate over questions of academic quality and economic sustainability.

This said, the momentum is now with those advocating open access monographs. Recent statements on opportunities (as well as challenges) include Professor Geoffrey Crossick’s ‘Monographs and Open Access’ (2015) with its recommendation ‘that funders develop policies to encourage moves towards open access for monographs’.

In autumn 2016 JSTOR, the digital library founded in 1995 by the president of Princeton University, began making available OA monographs from four university presses in the US and UK. And last month the Higher Education Funding Council for England (HEFCE) stated its intention ‘to move towards an open-access requirement for monographs in the exercise that follows the next REF (expected in the mid-2020s).’ In response, academic presses are gearing up for what has the makings of a significant shift in arts publishing.

The Humanities Digital Library is the School’s contribution to this new landscape. It is not alone, of course. Across the UK, universities presses are being relaunched as open access publishers (of which UCL Press is a notable example), while commercial and established houses, such as Palgrave and OUP, are also exploring OA options.


Stephen Mason

In this populous arena, the Humanities Digital Library is distinctive in two key ways. First, it offers a combination of first-time monographs (for example, the fourth edition of Stephen Mason’s Electronic Signatures in Law) alongside new eBook versions of works that have previously only existed in print (including A History of the French in London from the IHR’s conference series).

Each title is published as an open access PDF, with copies also available to purchase in print and EPUB formats. As existing titles are rediscovered via the Library we anticipate an upturn in print sales as some readers purchase a valued work in hardcopy. The healthy co-existence, and symbiosis, of OA and print – central to reviews such as Professor Crossick’s – is something we hope to foster.

Second, the Humanities Digital Library allows greater flexibility in publishing formats. Monographs and edited collections of 80–100,000 words will likely remain the dominant currency. But we’re also inviting scholars to experiment with shorter (and perhaps longer) form works when their research is best communicated in a scholarly text of, say, 40,000 words. In addition, the Library will allow creative linking to supporting or supplementary content – for example, datasets or extra images – that cannot be accommodated in traditional print formats.

In each case the work of commissioning, peer reviewing, editing and distributing a new monograph remains with the individual institute working with the School’s publishing department. What changes are the potential scope, scale and ambition of these new works, as well as the discoverability and availability of existing titles already published by SAS.

These opportunities are important for building partnerships beyond the School of Advanced Study. The Royal Historical Society’s New Historical Perspectives series will publish OA monographs, conference proceedings and shorter form works by early career researchers. Existing publishers of open access books typically charge sizeable fees, while OA university presses waive charges only for ‘home’ academic staff. Thanks to an RHS / IHR partnership, ‘New Historical Perspectives’ is open to all early career academics, with works published open access with no charge to the author.

With the Humanities Digital Library now live our priority in 2017 is expansion and promotion: to fellow academics and librarians across the School of Advanced Study; to potential partners such as learned societies, museums or galleries; and to early career researchers who’ll be among the first to engage in this next step in scholarly book publishing.

Dr Philip Carter is Head of Digital at the Institute of Historical Research. If you’d like to know more about the Humanities Digital Library, please email:

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