The Digital Incunable Era

Historical narratives of the birth of printing in Europe tend to zero in on one technological innovation: Johannes Gutenberg’s invention of moveable type. There are good reasons for this, of course, reasons that are well known and need not be repeated here. But early printing shops required innovative solutions to a great variety of additional problems, problems that might have been technological (page layouts, book formats, getting ink to adhere in the best manner), financial (creating a business model centered on a novel technology, securing capital, selling and warehousing stock), or social (piracy, censorship, the perceived primacy of manuscripts) in nature. Early printers often wore many hats while struggling to get their products to potential buyers, serving as translators, publishers, retailers, marketers, and bookkeepers, inter alia, all while mastering and refining a revolutionary new technology.

These disparate roles soon became distinct occupations that supported the growing business of printing ephemera, broadsides, books, and periodicals. Over time printers, papermakers, ink makers, advertisers, editors, marketers, retailers, and many others formed a web of interconnected professions that supplied the public with printed materials of staggering variety. And over time the printer, for whom publishing was initially one of many professional roles, became a specialist contracted by publishers.

There were of course many permutations of the basic model I have sketched here; newspapers, for example, tended to keep many of these roles under one roof while they were highly distributed in book publishing. Within the world of the academy, a somewhat odd model took shape. Institutions of higher learning paid the salaries of the professoriate, who then gave away (or perhaps earned a small amount from) the journal articles and monographs that they produced as part of their professional responsibilities to their employers. These scholars also provided the labor of pre- and post-publication peer review. Many of their works were published by presses and journals subsidized by universities, and in turn universities often constituted the sole clients of these publishers, buying back the labor of their faculties and the output of the presses and journals that they subsidized.

Expressing this model as a series of business transactions has, I hope, had the effect of highlighting how odd this arrangement was from a dollar and cents perspective. But here’s the point: it worked. It worked not as a revenue-generating venture necessarily, but as a way of documenting the progress and debates of the many disciplines under the ample aegis of the modern university. This was clearly not a business model aimed at increasing market share and maximizing profit. But this arrangement played a critical role in maximizing the return of the two most important assets of any institution of higher learning: its faculty and its library, those who produced new knowledge and the sum of that knowledge curated and made discoverable for others.

Today we live in the digital incunable era, a time rife with challenges remarkably similar to those faced by early printers. The contemporary digital scholar often edits, translates, annotates, publishes, negotiates rights for, design interfaces for, and distributes her scholarly work. The many technological, social, political, and financial problems inherent in such work are burdensome, but this is clearly a direction in which we must move and many have taken up the call. On top of these challenges, however, many scholars are for the first time being asked that their work be self-sustaining, or even revenue generating. In the model sketched above, a faculty member some decades ago who was asked by his employer how his research would be self-sustaining might be forgiven his surprise; he was, after all, planning for the university to pay him for working on it, to buy it back from his publisher, and then to pay librarians to curate it and make it freely available to others. Yet somehow the move to digital publishing has brought with it frequent expectations of profitability and self-sustainability that were not part of the print model of scholarship; the scaffolding of subsidized support has been pulled from beneath the scholar at the time of greatest need.

Times are tight and budgets are shrinking on many campuses. This is not a trivial problem, nor one which there is time to address here. But efforts to turn scholarly projects, academic presses, and libraries into revenue generators are not working precisely because these were never designed to create wealth. In casting about for new sources of revenue, colleges and universities must be sure to protect their core investments – their faculties and libraries – by continuing to invest in, and indeed by finding ways to subsidize, the producers, publishers, and curators of new knowledge. 

Image on front page by Penn Provenance Project and available on Flickr. 


 I will admit that I do not know much about or have experience with digital publishing. I was drawn to the presentation of the production of scholarship as business transactions. The system worked the way it was before, and there isn’t a clear-cut path to generating revenue from scholarly projects, academic presses, and libraries; however, there was a time when the business model for higher education was unclear. As to whether or not scholarship should generate, I am unsure. If nothing else, I find that, once again, where I thought things going digital would increase access the opposite occurs. I saw Creative Commons as the future of digital scholarship, which goes completely against what seems to be happening.

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