Wind and chaff, and the laughter of yokels: Beyond student, teacher, publisher, and librarian

Draft of 2006.09.16 ☛ 2015.06.15

May include: digitizationacademia&c.

I’ve just finished a second enjoyable day at the Text Creation Partnership Colloquium here in Ann Arbor. Individual observations and links to interesting research will be forthcoming as I wind down, but there’s one thing I have to note immediately, just to offload it from my head:

There were innumerable themes and predictions vetted in the talks, mainly centering on the effect of EEBO-TCP and related electronic resources for research. Changes in the conduct of research. Changes in the planned expansion and interfaces of databases. Adjustments in the social dynamics of publishing, the markup of data, the establishment of standards. Shifts and adaptations from the librarians working in institutions of higher learning. Deep enhancements and acceleration of traditional academic research techniques, which will push the scholarly discourse towards new untrammeled frontiers of strenuous scribbling and yammering, and the funding thereof. That sort of thing.

In every talk, the framing and open questions centered on four groups of people: Students. Faculty. Librarians. Publishers. What can publishers do to better serve their faculty users? What can librarians do to better train students to use these resources? How will faculty direct librarians to communicate with publishers about what they need for their students’ research? And so forth.

Not once—though I confess I missed half a day yesterday, but doubt I missed the term in use—not once did anybody mention the public.

Not one goddamned word about the people who pay for this all. I make myself sound like a Chamber of Commerce Member by saying it that way, but no matter how you slice it: regular people foot the bill, but are not encouraged to join in this invigorating four-way conversation, nor for that matter play a role in the market of ideas, published works, scholarly effort and the [vast amounts of] money that compromise those groups’ interactions.

The world of scholarship can be abstruse, esoteric, and overly refined; while it is (arguably) collegial within the Ivory Tower, it’s not particularly known for its general utility beyond those walls. One reading of the social contract that underlies American-style University funding could be: We’ll pay for the place, and the supporting infrastructures for research and the Life of the Mind, as long as you teach these damned kids and don’t pester us with the details of your work too much.

But I would like to know how it came about that “don’t pester us with the details of your work,” has transformed into “lock your source materials and work behind a firewall and never let us see it.” Even as a Townie, I could pay $350 and go check books out of the physical U-M library system; even as a Townie I could sit at a terminal in a library building and access their searchable databases; even as a Townie I could attend on-site seminars; even as a Townie I was able to buttonhole faculty friends and old colleagues and chat occasionally.

I could do none of those things from home. I need to go there. A University is supposed to be physical. It’s a location. A place.

Maybe you see where I’m going. That place I’m going is the place we’re all going: It’s the place I’m sitting right now, and you’re sitting as you read this. The two ends of a “series of pipes”. The network.

The culture of the Academy—though I have been immersed in it for decades now, and (to be frank) respect many of its individual members above all other human beings—the Academy as an institution with its inward-facing culture never ceases to amaze by its ridiculously blind self-appraisals and assumptions.

We talked for two days about the effect that the new electronic archives and networked scholarship will have on the practices of scholarship, preservation, pedagogy, and publishing. Blah-de-incremental-blah. While there was an understanding of the importance of these huge archives, and the impact that improved access and availability will have internally on the system of four major academic players, nobody seemed to consider one crucial thing.

These resources are no longer geographically isolated. They’re in the system of pipes. Eventually, depending on either draconian licensing agreements or the diligence of lay competitors, they’re becoming available to the lay public.

They’re. On. The. Network. Not in a big impressive physical brick ivy-covered library. They’re online. In everybody’s home.

And when that has finally happened—while that is happening—the fifth and silent player will cease to be an innocuous bill-paying bystander. The lay public will become a core participant. Or competitor.

Forget ARPA: You and I, right now, are using a novel nonacademic channel for discourse, scholarly and otherwise. Forget ProQuest and ECCO and EEBO: We see online already innumerable efforts aimed at collaborative archiving and production of authoritative historical and genealogical texts outside the Academy. The barriers to entry for publishing are disappearing, as wikis and Lulu.com and every other damned Web thing drags the power of movable type out of the clenched blue hands of the Northern European families that cornered the market centuries ago.

The fundamental effect that will come with public network availability of scholarly raw materials—whether that access is granted by the moneyed stakeholders, or comes from sidestep production of novel content by the lay publichas not yet been discussed. Networked electronic communications evaporate the costs of production and redistribution to make “books” (whatever they are) and “conversations” (whatever they are) free like beer, enabling independent publication, independent scholarship, independent pedagogy and discussion.

We didn’t talk about that, in all of two days supposedly focused on those very subjects. The word “public” did not enter into the equation at all. Why not? Maybe because I was sitting next to the only person in the room who is not a member of one those four classes of academic.

My wife is one of those public people, the ones who will shatter the connections between and barriers around that centuries-old four-way club. Not intentionally; not out of malice. As a consequence of her strength, intelligence, curiosity and diligence. She, and all the thousands of other unwitting members of the independent, educated, curious, intelligent, uncredentialled networked lay public will shatter the system… by accident. By access. By breaking its boundaries.

None of the traditional players seem to know this yet. Someday soon they’ll figure it out. One way or another. Network effects have a tendency to crystallize suddenly, as if from thin air. They catch everybody by surprise, when they hit.

You’d think historians would catch on. That they might see the analogy between the invention of movable type, and the Net. Between the scholarly traditions of the Church in Europe, and the modern University. That they might wonder about all those statues of saints with their faces chipped off. In some sense, Gutenberg’s movable type did that. What will this thing here do?

The swerve at the end: As a potent cultural experiment, change one word above to its close synonym. Consider how the piece reads, exactly as written, and how you expect tenured faculty, publishers and IHE librarians to respond when they read it.

Now, change the phrase “the public” to “alumni” throughout. What happens?

What I can only describe as an implication of flag-waving hooligans atop smouldering ruins, and of knitting by a guillotine, gives way to one of sweater-clad silver-haired businessmen prone to waving football flags, and SUV-driving mothers willing to donate funds so their names can appear on a wall at the Botanical Center. Who is this educated, curious, scholarly “public” who is shut out of the Academy, but alumni of one institution or another?

How interesting that this notion of shared access and a “lay scholarly community” becomes so much more palatable, when it appears I’m simply talking about alumni: of those who have graduated with a higher degree from somewhere, in some discipline.

I’m not just talking about alumni, of course. But I could start there. It might be easier to do so, if you find yourself playing an early role in the transformation of the community of scholarship: point out that you’re not just anybody.