History as a Book Discipline

Is Digital Publishing Killing Books?

Claire Bond Potter, April 2015

In 2013, I was on a plenary session at the AHA annual meeting where then-president William Cronon embraced the digital revolution. “The world in which we do history is changing quite radically in the United States and in the world,” Cronon declared. New digital tools and electronic publishing seemed to be “as radical and revolutionary in their potential impact on the culture as Gutenberg’s invention of moveable type in the middle of the 15th century were, and we are still in very early days in that set of transitions.”

Later, during a vigorous discussion, Cronon mentioned that he had parted with nearly all of his books and relied on a tablet reader to curate his library.1 Wait—what kind of historian had no books? Members of the audience had a collective seizure. Several commenters vigorously protested the imminent demise of books and, with them, whole fields within history.

Whenever I am on such a panel, as I now am with some frequency, I emphasize that digital technology is diversifying, not destroying, scholarly publication. It permits greater access to audiences. It makes it possible to publish in less popular fields for a fixed production cost, adjusting production to demand. Technology can enhance comprehension with embedded documents, high-resolution images, video, and music in an electronic book. Digital projects also promote collaboration, which fields other than history believe to be equal or superior to the sole author model. Perhaps the greatest misconception about digital history is that it makes everyone her own publisher, bypassing peer review. To the contrary, digital historians tend to expand the review process beyond one or two experts, often asking a crowd to evaluate the content and design of a digital book or project.2

Books are not dead; publishing is simply becoming more various in a world where paper publishing among historians continues to be robust. Including Cronon, there were five well-regarded writers of books on our 2013 panel, as well as an acquisitions editor whose traditional press has embraced digital publishing. The writers included a series editor, scholar, and blogger; a popular author; a scholar who had produced a major digital project; and a historian who teaches with social media and subsequently submitted her presentation to my blog as her first e-publication. In a downstairs ballroom, there was also a lively exhibit of perhaps 10,000 recently published books. Despite this obvious evidence of the book’s health, one commenter after another protested its imminent death.

How Long Have Books Been Dying?

English-speaking people seem to have been concerned about the death of the book since the mid-1820s, when books were genuinely difficult to obtain and literacy was low. Historically, anxiety about the health of books seems to have spiked when newer media have challenged established practices of book reading. As figure 1 suggests, these upticks of concern have coincided with the emergence of popular newspapers and the penny press between 1820 and 1830; magazine publishing during the American Civil War; and the invention of movies, radio, cheap paperbacks, and television between 1900 and 1960. Conversation about the book’s demise escalated in the late 1960s, rushing steeply upward to the year 2000. Late 20th-century anxiety coincided not just with the increased popularity of television journalism and color TV, but also with the collapse of the market for academic jobs in history.3

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The phrase “death of the book,” as mapped on Google NGram, October 16, 2014.

Significantly, the only period in which anxiety about the death of books completely subsided was in the 1880s and 1890s, when professional history was on the rise and university-trained historians began to distinguish themselves by publishing, in the words of Peter Novick, “narrow and dull monographs.”4 These monographs—often the length of several articles until after 1900—evolved into the more entertaining and widely available volumes historians value today in part because Otto Mergenthaler patented the linotype composer in 1886. This faster and cheaper publishing technology made it possible to market long-form scholarship (not to mention the American Historical Review, founded in 1895) at a price that other scholars, libraries, and educated readers would pay.

In other words, the literary habitus associated with modern historical scholarship was shaped not just by methods and institutions, but also by the new possibility that all historians could publish books. This raises an interesting question: Is our contemporary concern about the death of the book related only to the popularity of digital technology? Or is it a symptom of our fear that the historical profession itself is ill?

We Are Our Books

The sentimental attachment to books among historians deserves further research into its own past. Many of us became scholars because we love to read. We crave the solitude a book offers, a pleasure that grows more precious as we mature into lives of teaching, committee meetings, and domesticity. We love the weight of a new book in our hands as we inhale the perfume of paper, cloth, and glue, or the smell of dust in a used volume. We customize our books by writing our thoughts in the margins.

In this context, it is easy to see why the collective identity of historians can be undermined by bound volumes evolving into something else: an e-book, an interactive open-access site on Comment Press, a digital history project, a video game. Most historians, young and old, digital or codex, inhabit professional lives furnished with books. Our work improves on and complements books written by others. Digital technology seems to threaten the genre through which we not only know the world but also speak back to it.

Our response—to stubbornly define history as a “book field,” in the traditional sense—may be preventing us (to paraphrase Donald Rumsfeld) from knowing what we do not know. Why make a virtue of ignorance? As a series editor, I am aware that the vast majority of historians understand little about the business of publishing in the first place. We often do not read the contracts we sign, and thus fail to understand what our rights and opportunities are as our books go in and out of print or into electronic formats. In graduate school, most of us do not acquire the organizational skills we will need to manage a large digital project or the grants that could support it. We don’t know why we might choose collaborative over single authorship, or why open-access publishing, which makes our work available for free, might be advantageous to a career.

In other words, the book may not be dead, but the digital future is already here, and most of us aren’t ready.

Should Historians All Write Books?

Although I do write books, I think it is a live question whether every historian, regardless of talent, time, financial support, and predilection, should have to prove his or her bona fides through long-form writing. Many crucial turning points in women’s, gender, and queer history have been proposed in articles. Cultural historian Warren Sussman never wrote a monograph. Instead, he published pathbreaking articles, collected and republished as a book shortly before his death.5

Like the historians of the late 19th century, many of my colleagues would argue that there is much to be said for being able to think through a complex problem from beginning to end, simultaneously drilling down and demonstrating the larger significance of one’s findings. Good books do that. However, digital tools have made possible other kinds of “books,” as well as historical projects far larger and denser than a book can manage. The prestige that currently attaches to the writing of paper books does not have to be dismantled to make room for other forms of equally, perhaps even more, meritorious scholarship.

What does this mean for the historians of the future? We will want to master styles of writing that attract Internet readers, both long form and short form. We will want to explore electronic, interactive, and open-access books. We will want to become experts in critiquing digital history, and skilled in offering sources and images directly to readers. We will want to learn gaming as a way to demonstrate counterfactuals and narrate the consequences of historical decision making. We will learn to navigate an interactive audience of referees, extending well beyond editors, anonymous referees, professional colleagues, and experts in our fields.

Is the book dead? Long live the book!

Claire Bond Potter is professor of history and codirector of the Humanities Action Lab at The New School, and coeditor of a book series, Since 1970: Histories of Contemporary America, published by the University of Georgia Press. Her next book, Digital U, will be published by the University of North Carolina Press.

Notes

1. A complete recording can be found at http://www.c-span.org/video/?310096-1/history-digital-age.

2. See Jack Dougherty, Kristen Nawrotzki, Charlotte D. Rochez, and Timothy Burke, “What We Learned from Writing History in the Digital Age,” in Dougherty and Nawrotzki, eds., Writing History in the Digital Age, (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 2013), 264.

3. See Albert Abramson, The History of Television, 1942 to 2000 (Jefferson, NC: McFarland Press, 2007), 140–172; David Greenberg, Nixon’s Shadow: The History of an Image (New York: W. W. Norton, 2003), 180.

4. Peter Novick, That Noble Dream: The “Objectivity Question” and the American Historical Profession (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1988), 55.

5. Warren Sussman, Culture as History: The Transformation of American Society in the Twentieth Century (New York: Pantheon Books, 1973).


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