I came across an interesting blog post by Ben Schmidt, who works at Princeton, during my somewhat sporadic reading of DH blogs. The post addresses a sentiment felt by some skeptics of DH, that it rejects books. This post is in response to another post from a scholar that essentially describes fears that the digitization of books is putting too much control in the hands of corporations. The corporations are deciding what context the book can be used in. For example a paper book that I purchase allows me to write in the margins and photocopy certain pages, but this isn’t true for E-readers like the Ipad and Kindle. These devices don’t allow you to print off pages, highlight, or write in the margins. To those skeptics, this type of digital book is limiting the context in which I can use the purchased text. Schmidt agrees that these E-books are a lousy deal, and that most Digital Humanists are against them. He also compares the restrictions of an E-book as very similar to restrictions on physical books from a library, yet we applaud the increased access to information libraries allow. The rights to a library book are restricted in that it is temporary access, we can’t write in the margins and a private/state entity decides what information is accessible. Schmidt contends that, “DH is intensely, productively concerned with finding ways to keep gatekeepers from controlling access to texts.”
Many contemporary scholars argue that digital works are not as stable, permanent and safe from copyright infringement as a book has always been. They argue that the control over the information (how it’s presented, what’s accessible, etc) is too broad. Schmidt defends DH, saying, “No one that I know of is happily trying to ‘speed along… the obsolesence of the book’; rather, they are actively engaged in trying to find ways to retain the freedoms allowed by print culture while also taking a new opportunity to reevaluate its shortcomings. “ He also notes that most historians prefer prestige in publication over openness and accessibility, a sentiment I feel will change as our generation gets older and we move forward into the “digital age”.
Many other points of contention are addressed in his blog post, but one last interesting argument states, “the current academic system is like the church in all its censoring, rigidly hierarchical glory, the digital field more resembles the chaos of the early church. And that’s as terrifying as it is empowering.” If we remove the intermediary of publishers entirely, then we are left with many individual voices that stand on their own. Then, the individual readers decide what texts are read and most prominent, not some publisher or conference organizer.
Will we see the end of publishing formal texts during our lifetimes? Or will the format and context simply change with the advent of completely digital/online journals?