Present and Active: Digital Publishing in a Post-print Age

Kerry Margaret Mallan, Annette Patterson


At one point in Victor Hugo’s novel, The Hunchback of Notre Dame, the archdeacon, Claude Frollo, looked up from a book on his table to the edifice of the gothic cathedral, visible from his canon’s cell in the cloister of Notre Dame: “Alas!” he said, “this will kill that” (146). Frollo’s lament, that the book would destroy the edifice, captures the medieval cleric’s anxiety about the way in which Gutenberg’s print technology would become the new universal means for recording and communicating humanity’s ideas and artistic expression, replacing the grand monuments of architecture, human engineering, and craftsmanship. For Hugo, architecture was “the great handwriting of humankind” (149). The cathedral as the material outcome of human technology was being replaced by the first great machine—the printing press. At this point in the third millennium, some people undoubtedly have similar anxieties to Frollo: is it now the book’s turn to be destroyed by yet another great machine? The inclusion of “post print” in our title is not intended to sound the death knell of the book. Rather, we contend that despite the enduring value of print, digital publishing is “present and active” and is changing the way in which research, particularly in the humanities, is being undertaken.

Our approach has three related parts. First, we consider how digital technologies are changing the way in which content is constructed, customised, modified, disseminated, and accessed within a global, distributed network. This section argues that the transition from print to electronic or digital publishing means both losses and gains, particularly with respect to shifts in our approaches to textuality, information, and innovative publishing. Second, we discuss the Children’s Literature Digital Resources (CLDR) project, with which we are involved. This case study of a digitising initiative opens out the transformative possibilities and challenges of digital publishing and e-scholarship for research communities. Third, we reflect on technology’s capacity to bring about major changes in the light of the theoretical and practical issues that have arisen from our discussion.


I. Digitising in a “post-print age”

We are living in an era that is commonly referred to as “the late age of print” (see Kho) or the “post-print age” (see Gunkel). According to Aarseth, we have reached a point whereby nearly all of our public and personal media have become more or less digital (37). As Kho notes, web newspapers are not only becoming increasingly more popular, but they are also making rather than losing money, and paper-based newspapers are finding it difficult to recruit new readers from the younger generations (37). Not only can such online-only publications update format, content, and structure more economically than print-based publications, but their wide distribution network, speed, and flexibility attract advertising revenue. Hype and hyperbole aside, publishers are not so much discarding their legacy of print, but recognising the folly of not embracing innovative technologies that can add value by presenting information in ways that satisfy users’ needs for content to-go or for edutainment. As Kho notes: “no longer able to satisfy customer demand by producing print-only products, or even by enabling online access to semi-static content, established publishers are embracing new models for publishing, web-style” (42).

Advocates of online publishing contend that the major benefits of online publishing over print technology are that it is faster, more economical, and more interactive. However, as Hovav and Gray caution, “e-publishing also involves risks, hidden costs, and trade-offs” (79). The specific focus for these authors is e-journal publishing and they contend that while cost reduction is in editing, production and distribution, if the journal is not open access, then costs relating to storage and bandwith will be transferred to the user. If we put economics aside for the moment, the transition from print to electronic text (e-text), especially with electronic literary works, brings additional considerations, particularly in their ability to make available different reading strategies to print, such as “animation, rollovers, screen design, navigation strategies, and so on” (Hayles 38).

Transition from print to e-text

In his book, Writing Space, David Bolter follows Victor Hugo’s lead, but does not ask if print technology will be destroyed. Rather, he argues that “the idea and ideal of the book will change: print will no longer define the organization and presentation of knowledge, as it has for the past five centuries” (2). As Hayles noted above, one significant indicator of this change, which is a consequence of the shift from analogue to digital, is the addition of graphical, audio, visual, sonic, and kinetic elements to the written word. A significant consequence of this transition is the reinvention of the book in a networked environment.

Unlike the printed book, the networked book is not bound by space and time. Rather, it is an evolving entity within an ecology of readers, authors, and texts. The Web 2.0 platform has enabled more experimentation with blending of digital technology and traditional writing, particularly in the use of blogs, which have spawned blogwriting and the wikinovel. Siva Vaidhyanathan’s The Googlization of Everything: How One Company is Disrupting Culture, Commerce and Community … and Why We Should Worry is a wikinovel or blog book that was produced over a series of weeks with contributions from other bloggers (see: Penguin Books, in collaboration with a media company, “Six Stories to Start,” have developed six stories—“We Tell Stories,” which involve different forms of interactivity from users through blog entries, Twitter text messages, an interactive google map, and other features. For example, the story titled “Fairy Tales” allows users to customise the story using their own choice of names for characters and descriptions of character traits. Each story is loosely based on a classic story and links take users to synopses of these original stories and their authors and to online purchase of the texts through the Penguin Books sales website.

These examples of digital stories are a small part of the digital environment, which exploits computer and online technologies’ capacity to be interactive and immersive. As Janet Murray notes, the interactive qualities of digital environments are characterised by their procedural and participatory abilities, while their immersive qualities are characterised by their spatial and encyclopedic dimensions (71–89). These immersive and interactive qualities highlight different ways of reading texts, which entail different embodied and cognitive functions from those that reading print texts requires. As Hayles argues:

the advent of electronic textuality presents us with an unparalleled opportunity to reformulate fundamental ideas about texts and, in the process, to see print as well as electronic texts with fresh eyes (89–90).

The transition to e-text also highlights how digitality is changing all aspects of everyday life both inside and outside the academy.


Online teaching and e-research

Another aspect of the commercial arm of publishing that is impacting on academe and other organisations is the digitising and indexing of print content for niche distribution. Kho offers the example of the Mark Logic Corporation, which uses its XML content platform to repurpose content, create new content, and distribute this content through multiple portals. As the promotional website video for Mark Logic explains, academics can use this service to customise their own textbooks for students by including only articles and book chapters that are relevant to their subject. These are then organised, bound, and distributed by Mark Logic for sale to students at a cost that is generally cheaper than most textbooks.

A further example of how print and digital materials can form an integrated, customised source for teachers and students is eFictions (Trimmer, Jennings, & Patterson). eFictions was one of the first print and online short story anthologies that teachers of literature could customise to their own needs. Produced as both a print text collection and a website, eFictions offers popular short stories in English by well-known traditional and contemporary writers from the US, Australia, New Zealand, UK, and Europe, with summaries, notes on literary features, author biographies, and, in one instance, a YouTube movie of the story. In using the eFictions website, teachers can build a customised anthology of traditional and innovative stories to suit their teaching preferences.

These examples provide useful indicators of how content is constructed, customised, modified, disseminated, and accessed within a distributed network. However, the question remains as to how to measure their impact and outcomes within teaching and learning communities. As Harley suggests in her study on the use and users of digital resources in the humanities and social sciences, several factors warrant attention, such as personal teaching style, philosophy, and specific disciplinary requirements. However, in terms of understanding the benefits of digital resources for teaching and learning, Harley notes that few providers in her sample had developed any plans to evaluate use and users in a systematic way.

In addition to the problems raised in Harley’s study, another relates to how researchers can be supported to take full advantage of digital technologies for e-research. The transformation brought about by information and communication technologies extends and broadens the impact of research, by making its outputs more discoverable and usable by other researchers, and its benefits more available to industry, governments, and the wider community.

Traditional repositories of knowledge and information, such as libraries, are juggling the space demands of books and computer hardware alongside increasing reader demand for anywhere, anytime, anyplace access to information. Researchers’ expectations about online access to journals, eprints, bibliographic data, and the views of others through wikis, blogs, and associated social and information networking sites such as YouTube compete with the traditional expectations of the institutions that fund libraries for paper-based archives and book repositories. While university libraries are finding it increasingly difficult to purchase all hardcover books relevant to numerous and varied disciplines, a significant proportion of their budgets goes towards digital repositories (e.g., STORS), indexes, and other resources, such as full-text electronic specialised and multidisciplinary journal databases (e.g., Project Muse and Proquest); electronic serials; e-books; and specialised information sources through fast (online) document delivery services. An area that is becoming increasingly significant for those working in the humanities is the digitising of historical and cultural texts.

II. Bringing back the dead: The CLDR project

The CLDR project is led by researchers and librarians at the Queensland University of Technology, in collaboration with Deakin University, University of Sydney, and members of the AustLit team at The University of Queensland. The CLDR project is a “Research Community” of the electronic bibliographic database AustLit: The Australian Literature Resource, which is working towards the goal of providing a complete bibliographic record of the nation’s literature. AustLit offers users with a single entry point to enhanced scholarly resources on Australian writers, their works, and other aspects of Australian literary culture and activities. AustLit and its Research Communities are supported by grants from the Australian Research Council and financial and in-kind contributions from a consortium of Australian universities, and by other external funding sources such as the National Collaborative Research Infrastructure Strategy.

Like other more extensive digitisation projects, such as Project Gutenberg and the Rosetta Project, the CLDR project aims to provide a centralised access point for digital surrogates of early published works of Australian children’s literature, with access pathways to existing resources. The first stage of the CLDR project is to provide access to digitised, full-text, out-of-copyright Australian children’s literature from European settlement to 1945, with selected digitised critical works relevant to the field. Texts comprise a range of genres, including poetry, drama, and narrative for young readers and picture books, songs, and rhymes for infants. Currently, a selection of 75 e-texts and digital scans of original texts from Project Gutenberg and Internet Archive have been linked to the Children’s Literature Research Community. By the end of 2009, the CLDR will have digitised approximately 1000 literary texts and a significant number of critical works. Stage II and subsequent development will involve digitisation of selected texts from 1945 onwards.

A precursor to the CLDR project has been undertaken by Deakin University in collaboration with the State Library of Victoria, whereby a digital bibliographic index comprising Victorian School Readers has been completed with plans for full-text digital surrogates of a selection of these texts. These texts provide valuable insights into citizenship, identity, and values formation from the 1930s onwards.

At the time of writing, the CLDR is at an early stage of development. An extensive survey of out-of-copyright texts has been completed and the digitisation of these resources is about to commence. The project plans to make rich content searchable, allowing scholars from children’s literature studies and education to benefit from the many advantages of online scholarship. What digital publishing and associated digital archives, electronic texts, hypermedia, and so forth foreground is the fact that writers, readers, publishers, programmers, designers, critics, booksellers, teachers, and copyright laws operate within a context that is highly mediated by technology.

In his article on large-scale digitisation projects carried out by Cornell and University of Michigan with the Making of America collection of 19th-century American serials and monographs, Hirtle notes that when special collections’ materials are available via the Web, with appropriate metadata and software, then they can “increase use of the material, contribute to new forms of research, and attract new users to the material” (44). Furthermore, Hirtle contends that despite the poor ergonomics associated with most electronic displays and e-book readers, “people will, when given the opportunity, consult an electronic text over the print original” (46). If this preference is universally accurate, especially for researchers and students, then it follows that not only will the preference for electronic surrogates of original material increase, but preference for other kinds of electronic texts will also increase.

It is with this preference for electronic resources in mind that we approached the field of children’s literature in Australia and asked questions about how future generations of researchers would prefer to work. If electronic texts become the reference of choice for primary as well as secondary sources, then it seems sensible to assume that researchers would prefer to sit at the end of the keyboard than to travel considerable distances at considerable cost to access paper-based print texts in distant libraries and archives. We considered the best means for providing access to digitised primary and secondary, full text material, and digital pathways to existing online resources, particularly an extensive indexing and bibliographic database. Prior to the commencement of the CLDR project, AustLit had already indexed an extensive number of children’s literature.


Challenges and dilemmas

The CLDR project, even in its early stages of development, has encountered a number of challenges and dilemmas that centre on access, copyright, economic capital, and practical aspects of digitisation, and sustainability. These issues have relevance for digital publishing and e-research.

A decision is yet to be made as to whether the digital texts in CLDR will be available on open or closed/tolled access. The preference is for open access. As Hayles argues, copyright is more than a legal basis for intellectual property, as it also entails ideas about authorship, creativity, and the work as an “immaterial mental construct” that goes “beyond the paper, binding, or ink” (144). Seeking copyright permission is therefore only part of the issue. Determining how the item will be accessed is a further matter, particularly as future technologies may impact upon how a digital item is used. In the case of e-journals, the issue of copyright payment structures are evolving towards a collective licensing system, pay-per-view, and other combinations of print and electronic subscription (see Hovav and Gray).

For research purposes, digitisation of items for CLDR is not simply a scan and deliver process. Rather it is one that needs to ensure that the best quality is provided and that the item is both accessible and usable by researchers, and sustainable for future researchers. Sustainability is an important consideration and provides a challenge for institutions that host projects such as CLDR. Therefore, items need to be scanned to a high quality and this requires an expensive scanner and personnel costs. Files need to be in a variety of formats for preservation purposes and so that they may be manipulated to be useable in different technologies (for example, Archival Tiff, Tiff, Jpeg, PDF, HTML). Hovav and Gray warn that when technology becomes obsolete, then content becomes unreadable unless backward integration is maintained.

The CLDR items will be annotatable given AustLit’s NeAt funded project: Aus-e-Lit. The Aus-e-Lit project will extend and enhance the existing AustLit web portal with data integration and search services, empirical reporting services, collaborative annotation services, and compound object authoring, editing, and publishing services. For users to be able to get the most out of a digital item, it needs to be searchable, either through double keying or OCR (optimal character recognition).

The value of CLDR’s contribution

The value of the CLDR project lies in its goal to provide a comprehensive, searchable body of texts (fictional and critical) to researchers across the humanities and social sciences. Other projects seem to be intent on putting up as many items as possible to be considered as a first resort for online texts. CLDR is more specific and is not interested in simply generating a presence on the Web. Rather, it is research driven both in its design and implementation, and in its focussed outcomes of assisting academics and students primarily in their e-research endeavours. To this end, we have concentrated on the following: an extensive survey of appropriate texts; best models for file location, distribution, and use; and high standards of digitising protocols. These issues that relate to data storage, digitisation, collections, management, and end-users of data are aligned with the “Development of an Australian Research Data Strategy” outlined in An Australian e-Research Strategy and Implementation Framework (2006). CLDR is not designed to simply replicate resources, as it has a distinct focus, audience, and research potential. In addition, it looks at resources that may be forgotten or are no longer available in reproduction by current publishing companies. Thus, the aim of CLDR is to preserve both the time and a period of Australian history and literary culture. It will also provide users with an accessible repository of rare and early texts written for children.


III. Future directions

It is now commonplace to recognize that the Web’s role as information provider has changed over the past decade. New forms of “collective intelligence” or “distributed cognition” (Oblinger and Lombardi) are emerging within and outside formal research communities. Technology’s capacity to initiate major cultural, social, educational, economic, political and commercial shifts has conditioned us to expect the “next big thing.”

We have learnt to adapt swiftly to the many challenges that online technologies have presented, and we have reaped the benefits. As the examples in this discussion have highlighted, the changes in online publishing and digitisation have provided many material, network, pedagogical, and research possibilities: we teach online units providing students with access to e-journals, e-books, and customized archives of digitised materials; we communicate via various online technologies; we attend virtual conferences; and we participate in e-research through a global, digital network. In other words, technology is deeply engrained in our everyday lives.

In returning to Frollo’s concern that the book would destroy architecture, Umberto Eco offers a placatory note: “in the history of culture it has never happened that something has simply killed something else. Something has profoundly changed something else” (n. pag.). Eco’s point has relevance to our discussion of digital publishing. The transition from print to digital necessitates a profound change that impacts on the ways we read, write, and research. As we have illustrated with our case study of the CLDR project, the move to creating digitised texts of print literature needs to be considered within a dynamic network of multiple causalities, emergent technological processes, and complex negotiations through which digital texts are created, stored, disseminated, and used. Technological changes in just the past five years have, in many ways, created an expectation in the minds of people that the future is no longer some distant time from the present. Rather, as our title suggests, the future is both present and active.



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digital publishing; digital archives; Australian children's literature

Copyright (c) 2008 Kerry Margaret Mallan, Annette Patterson

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