Publication Date

May 1, 2000

Perspectives Section


"It is a publication, not merely the digitizing of information." In that simple, declarative sentence, William Strachan, director of Columbia University Press, neatly summed up the philosophy and raison d'etre of the Gutenberg-e program, while speaking at a workshop organized by the press for the six winners of the first Gutenberg-e Prizes awarded in January 2000.

Funded by a generous grant from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, the program aims primarily to meet two goals. First, it seeks to publish dissertations in fields where the traditional monograph is endangered because of publishers' commercial calculations. Second, it hopes to blur the distinction conventionally made between the printed book and an e-book, through the rigorous selection process of the prize competition and through the cachet of being published electronically by one of the leading publishers of academic books, Columbia University Press (which is an important partner in the program).

The workshop was intended to help the prizewinners negotiate the relatively uncharted territory of electronic publication and several experts were on hand to discuss the various aspects of transforming a dissertation into an e-book.

After a welcome speech by Elaine Sloan, vice president for information services at Columbia University, and comments by Strachan and Kate Wittenberg, director of the electronic publishing initiative at the press, the six prizewinners made brief presentations about their work, sketching out their research findings, discussing how they visualized the possibilities for electronic publishing, and expressing concerns about the unique problems of online publishing.

Jacqueline Holler said that her dissertation, “Escogidas Plantas: Nuns and Beatas in Mexico City, 1531–1601″ (Emory Univ., 1999) was an exploration of the formation of convents by the Spanish who thus integrated women into the colonial project and “sanctified the city” to sustain Spanish society within a larger Indian space. Holler suggested that in transforming the dissertation into an e-text, the “interior” and “exterior” parts of the beatas’ lives could be juxtaposed in more useful ways (that would be impossible in an ordinary linear text), thus eliciting new readings. Providing the original Spanish source texts (which is easier to do in an e-text) would also increase the transparency of the study, she argued. But Holler expressed concern that the nature of the reading might be transformed because the technological feasibility of searchable text may disaggregate the text (allowing different readers access to different parts of the book), thus negating the argument of multiple narratives, which requires juxtaposition of alternative readings.

The "invention of tradition" and the "imagined community" have been two of the influential concepts that dominated approaches to understanding of identity construction. Rejecting these, and replacing them with "performance" as a perceptual means, Anne Hardgrove examined a leading diasporic business community in India, the Marwaris, in her dissertation, “Community as Public Culture: The Marwaris of Calcutta, c. 1897–1997” (Univ. of Michigan, 1999). Hardgrove said that in transforming her study into an e-book she would like to turn it into a study of visual practices, focusing, for instance—through virtual reality tours of their dwelling places—on the use of architecture by the Marwaris to create identity. The e-text would also enable the presentation of multilingual texts to the reader, Hardgrove said.

As the different presentations were being made, one striking feature that began to emerge was the common intellectual threads that seemed to run through the several dissertations, perhaps reflecting the dominant concerns of scholars today.

The question of identity, for example, was central to many of the dissertations, although in different forms. Thus, in his dissertation, "The 'Door of the Seas and the Key to the Universe': Indian Politics and Imperial Rivalry in the Darien, 1640–1750" (Princeton Univ., 1999),Ignacio Gallup-Diaz argued, inter alia, that the politics of chieftaincies shaped Spanish colonial identity even while it affected the lives of indigenous peoples. Interestingly, like many of the others, Gallup-Diaz also dealt with the question of “colonial space.” He saw several ways in which the translation into an e-text could enrich the monograph: the greater use of oral traditions, display of maps, making available the corpus of “pirate literature” about eastern Panama, the linking of anthropologists and the Kuna Indian community, and the deployment of multiple narratives.

Not surprisingly, Helena Pohlandt-McCormick also saw the possibility of providing multiple narratives as an important advantage in an e-book, because her dissertation, “‘I Saw a Nightmare . . .’— Doing Violence to Memory: The Soweto Uprising, June 16, 1976” (Univ. of Minnesota, 1999), was primarily based on oral testimony, and her argument was, in fact, that the narratives of participants in the uprising were appropriated differently by different groups—the state and the political parties—for their own purposes. Thus the dissertation does not seek, Pohlandt-McCormick said, to present the “truth,” but instead, to present the multiple truths about Soweto.

Heidi Gengenbach, whose dissertation, “Where Women Make History: Pots, Stories, Tattoos, and other Gendered Accounts of Community and Change in Magude District, Mozambique, c. 1800 to the Present” (Univ. of Minnesota, 1999), also depended heavily on oral history (with more than 250 interviews running to about 550 hours of testimony), discussed how gender inflected the meaning of the term “history” in Magude. Women in Magude used a different word for past experiences, Gengenbach said, because they were less interested in the time and space of events and were more concerned with their relational contexts. While the dissertation can be enhanced in an e-book form—by the inclusion of different maps of Magude, for instance—the ways of presenting the source material posed challenges and concerns, Gengenbach said, raising questions about privacy and intellectual property, in particular.

Michael Katten described how his dissertation, “Category Creation and the Colonial Setting: Identity Formation in 19th-Century Telugu-Speaking India” (Univ. of California at Berkeley, 1997), departed from hackneyed models of colonialism to examine the “dialogic” negotiations between the colonizer and the colonized that shaped the latter’s identity. Katten thought he could, in making the e-book, enrich the narrative text with graphics such as maps and images and audio files of folk songs that constituted an element of his study. He suggested also that links to the actual sources could be provided whenever possible.

Katten agreed with the suggestion that he could consider layering the text in such a way that different readers with varying objectives could draw from the e-book whatever they are seeking. That is, in its many hyperlinked layers, the e-book can be a general discussion for the merely interested reader while at a deeper stratum, it could also be a detailed analysis for the scholarly inquirer.

Such a layered electronic palimpsest was precisely the model that Robert Darnton adopted for his own e-book, an ambitious, multidimensional exploration of the publishing industry in the Age of Enlightenment, which will be published in a parallel program by the American Council of Learned Societies. Darnton, the immediate past president of the AHA and an ardent advocate of electronic publication (whose idea it was, in fact, to launch the Gutenberg-e program), said his book will be designed as an electronic monograph “organized in levels of increasing complexity, so that at its apex it can be read by undergraduates and at its base it can communicate original research to specialists.” He was excited about the possibilities inherent in electronic publication, he said, but recognized that it should be scholarship that drove technology and not vice versa.

The design of Darnton's book seemed to answer one question posed in the discussion: what would be the readership for an electronic book? If different segments of the reading public can reach the different layers of an e-book such as Darnton's, then the audience can be much larger than that for the traditional printed book.

Many other questions were raised in the daylong workshop, such as: What would be the ethics of placing oral historical sources online? How would an author's voice be preserved in an e-book that also provides a collection of sources that produce their own narrative? How does the author counter the "browse factor" (the ability, and therefore tendency, to follow links beyond the bounds of the primary text)?

The experts in different aspects of publishing—editing, design, copyright, and Web publishing—from the press who also participated in the workshop answered these as well as other simpler questions such as those concerning copyright and modes of submission of materials for electronic publication. Press staff also demonstrated electronic publishing projects they were already involved in and discussed ways in which the Gutenberg-e site will evolve and become a trendsetter for a whole series of publications that are expected to be published electronically.

A follow-up workshop is planned for September 2000, by which time the authors will have had the opportunity to refine their dissertations, and the e-texts that at present are mere ideas will have acquired a more visible Web presence.

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