Publication Date

November 1, 2000

Perspectives Section


On September 25, 2000, editors, designers, professors, educational technologists, web wizards, and e-publishers gathered in a quiet room off the book-lined corridors in the imposing Butler Library building of Columbia University to brainstorm with the 1999 Gutenberg-e prizewinners in the second workshop organized by Columbia University Press.

The workshop had two goals. One was to get status reports from the six scholars who won the prestigious prize in 1999 for their dissertations in the fields of African, Latin American, and South Asian history, which, under the terms of the prize, will be first published online by Columbia University Press. The second goal was to provide the scholars with an opportunity to meet with experts in the fields of electronic as well as traditional publication to learn more about how they can take advantage of the possibilities of online publication to transform their scholarly work into multimedia web presentations.

The Gutenberg-e prizewinners for 1999 (Ignacio Gallup-Diaz, Heidi Gengenbach, Ann Hardgrove, Jacqueline Holler, Michael Katten, and Helena Pohlandt-McCormick), who had each received $20,000 to help them revise their dissertations, admitted to a sense of apprehension as they approached their task of turning texts into e-texts. They were, after all, pioneers in an uncharted territory where scholarship—hitherto presented in the confines of the printed book and its linear text—was for the first time encountering the free, multidimensional, and polymorphous publications of cyberspace.

As Michael Grossberg, the editor of the American Historical Review, asked, were the revised texts going to be dazzling displays of what the medium can do or will they fully demonstrate the merits of the scholarship? Grossberg told the participants that the AHR proposes to review the e-books when they are published, but that the standards for review needed to be worked out, given the lack of precedents for evaluating such e-books. The AHR‘s experience with film reviews indicated that the standards appropriate to printed books could not be applied to works in other media without attention to the mode of presentation. One way of dealing with the Gutenberg-e books, Grossberg said, would be to commission a review essay that would look at all the six books, focusing on the technical aspects, and to commission separate essays that would primarily examine the scholarly aspects. Grossberg’s comments touched upon one crucial aspect of producing electronic books—how should the scholar embarking on an exploratory voyage into cyberspace strike a balance between intellectually all-too-vital scholarship and the attractions of technical wizardry (layered hypertexts, multimedia presentations, dynamic references, and so on) rendered possible in e-texts? Robert Darnton, the prime mover of the Gutenberg-e Program when he was president of the AHA, and who is himself currently creating a soon-to-be-published e-book, advised the prizewinners to focus on scholarship and the intellectual argument and not let the technology determine their revisions.

While accepting the logic of the advice, the prizewinners, who had begun to grapple with the new challenges of revising for online publication, had also seen the possibility of the new medium compelling a reconceptualization of their work.

Heidi Gengenbach, for example, was excited by the possibility of using more nontextual sources to stitch together the two parts of her argument in a way that could not be accomplished in the linear bounds of a printed book. Her attempt to recover the histories of women in Mozambique that was hitherto dependent mainly on oral testimony could be much enhanced, she said, by creative visual representation of the tattoos on their bodies that were crucial to the women's remembrances of their past. But, Gengenbach said, the possibilities inherent in the new medium are not only persuading her to rethink her arguments, but are also raising new challenges—for example, the question of how to integrate the women of Mozambique into her book as a community and not as individuals.

Helena Pohlandt-McCormick saw in the e-book a possible solution to a problem that proved intractable in the dissertation—how to present the different narratives about the Soweto uprisings in a manner that would not privilege any particular one. The e-book, she said, would enable her to more clearly explicate the relationship between the narratives and the reconstruction of the uprisings' history. The e-book will also provide an opportunity to enhance the text that is already there, she said. For example, an image of a manuscript note with words scored out and replaced yields richer information about the participants in political action, she pointed out, than a simple transcript of the revised text.

Jacqueline Holler also saw the e-book as proffering a radically new way of presenting her argument. She needed to yoke two dissimilar parts of her thesis (on religious women in a way that still preserved the integrity of each part, and the e-book would enable her to do that. It would also be possible to add links to more documentary appendices than would be possible in a printed text.

Additions to the text—relatively inexpensive in an e-book—raised, however, another major question. How detailed should the book become in its electronic incarnation? This was a question that troubled Michael Katten as he proceeded to delve deeper into reconstructions of Telugu identity in early modern India, the focus of his dissertation. In his demonstration of a part of his evolving e-book, Katten showed how audiovisual links can enable the reader to perceive nuances that are entirely invisible in the text version and even enable him to problematize the text in new ways.

For Ignacio Gallup-Diaz also, the e-book offered, as he said, almost limitless possibililties of providing multiple narratives for the reader. But this raised, he noted, the question of who the readers would be, and how they would read his text. His site may contain, for example, a range of texts that he could not use in the dissertation and other narratives, thus presenting a richer account of his ethnohistory of indigenous responses to European intrusions into the Darién. These multiple texts could, however, become "building blocks" for readers to construct their own narratives, which might negate the story that he chose to tell.

Anne Hardgrove too was concerned by the possibility of multiple users of the e-book and the resultant plurality of meanings drawn from the text. Darnton's response to these concerns was that the scholars should focus on their work and not worry about the reader, as the power and integrity of their argument would sustain the narratives against misreadings. Hardgrove said that she liked the possibility offered by the e-book for integrating the author into the book and envisaged the use of audiovisual texts to enrich her study of the Marwari community in India.

Following the presentations of the prizewinners, Gordon Dahlquist and Linda Secondari of Columbia University Press discussed the different ways in which the scholars' work can be translated into enriched e-texts. James Burger, also of the press, made an informative presentation on the various ways in which the Internet can be effectively searched. The six scholars also had the opportunity to have extended discussions on many aspects of their work with Kate Wittenberg, director of the Electronic Publishing Initiative at Columbia University Press, and her colleagues.

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