By Professor Jane Winters
Humanities researchers disseminate their work in a wide range of venues and formats, depending on an ever-shifting combination of factors. These include disciplinary norms, the demands of particular career stages and assessment cycles, intended audience, personal preference, and other (sometimes overlapping) considerations. Digital Humanities pushes the publishing boundaries further than many disciplines, as a research project might result in the production of code, software, datasets, data visualisations and complex databases as well as the more familiar journal articles, book chapters and monographs. There is experimentation across the humanities, but it lies at the heart of Digital Humanities and strongly influences its publishing patterns and requirements.
But books retain enormous influence in Digital Humanities, just as they do for researchers in history or English studies. Digital Humanities researchers publish textbooks, short- and long-form monographs, edited collections of essays, handbooks, readers, and any number of other book-type objects. These are most commonly available in print and digital formats, with the requirements of print generally shaping structure and function. Where is the experimentation heralded by digital technologies, and the web in particular; where might it lead; and is experimentation with academic books even what authors and readers want?
There has been much consideration of the future of the academic book in recent decades, or more positively The Academic Book of the Future, but no real agreement as to what that future might look like. Are we at the start of a new era of multimedia publications, or even ‘executable’ books, which allow the reader to run the same code over the same data as the author? Will digital books be able to bring together analysis, synthesis, data and code in unique, even customisable configurations? Will this be a pleasant or challenging reading experience? Thought needs to be given to the sustainability of any book published online as a networked object, given the ephemerality of the web and the unpredictability of web archiving. Perhaps most importantly of all in the third decade of the 21st century, there is the question of the environmental impact of a shift away from print-on-demand and PDF to more computationally demanding multimedia publication.
There is a counter-narrative, which urges consideration of more minimal computing approaches, privileging simple text presentation and stripped-back design. These kinds of minimal digital books would be more sustainable, more accessible to those without fast-speed broadband, and less demanding of energy and resources. The academic books of the future might look rather like the academic books of the past, or at least the recent digital past.
There is value in both these approaches, and a more enticing future for academic books may well lie in embracing the diversity that characterises Digital Humanities. Depending on budget, purpose, audience and inclination, digital publication allows authors to choose what kind of book they would like to write; it also gives readers some freedom to choose what kind of book they would most like to engage with. Digital does not supersede but, rather, complements print. And increasingly, digital publication has the potential to allow previously excluded audiences to access the books which are written by humanities researchers, and which reflect their lives, experiences and cultures. The academic books and writing of the future will not be homogeneous, any more than they are today, and they will be available to new readers, in new contexts. They will also still often be printed.
Professor Jane Winters is Professor of Digital Humanities and Director of the Digital Humanities Research Hub (School of Advanced Study, University of London). Her research focuses on born-digital cultural heritage, the archived web, and open-access publishing, and her chapter on ‘Digital Humanities and the Academic Books of the Future’ is published in The Bloomsbury Handbook to the Digital Humanities.