The Road to Digital Considered

*A recent [posting on Ars Technica][at] about the American Chemical Society’s “road to digital” publishing spurred an interesting discussion, but a surprising number of posters fumed about the loss of print. I took a moment to write about the issue, using what little I know about how things work for my own society, the American Folklore Society:*

I, too, enjoy serendipity and have profited immensely in my intellectual and professional development from reading the card behind the one for which I was searching while in the card catalog or from seeing the title of a book on the shelf above the one for which I was looking. That said, that notion of browsing is not really lost in the digital realm. These things are called “browsers” after all and the rise of the multi-tab interface that allows one to open multiple other texts while one stays focused on another speaks directly to the ability to browse easily in the digital realm.

I am the editor of a website for a small scholarly society in the humanities, the American Folklore Society, that is about to make its premiere on October 1. We are deploying this new/additional communication platform in addition to our journal of record, the Journal of American Folklore. JAF already exists in print and digital form: as a paper product produced and shipped by the University of Illinois Press and as an electronic product available through Project Muse (5 most recent years) and through JSTOR. Having had a chance to talk some with the CIO for JSTOR through the Project Bamboo workshops, I have to say that JSTOR is really trying to do this right. And I would bet that they, too, are looking for some better format than PDF that is, in some ways, too heavily focused on print as an eventual outcome. (You would think in this era of XML and XSLT we would be there already, but, alas, we are not.)

Our society is not alone in being somewhat dependent on the revenue generated by subscriptions to the journal. Like any number of scholarly societies, subscriptions are considerably larger than the active members in the field and are largely dependent upon libraries around the world. In some way, libraries subsidize small scholarly societies as well as, perhaps, large ones. Perhaps that is as it should be. The true cost of running a scholarly society, as opposed to a professional society which can probably charge more for membership, can probably never be born by its members — unless, perhaps, they agglomerate into larger and larger groups for economies of scale. E.g., the American Anthropological Association. (Which now has a number of breakaway groups and journals because the views of the center cannot encompass the many views of its many edges.)

At the same time as all this is happening, libraries have been bearing the costs of both print and digital editions of scholarly products like journals. That kind of expansion of costs for, ostensibly, the same product was bearable when money was less of a concern. But it’s a concern now and likely to remain one for a while. And so, libraries now have to begin making choices that perhaps should have been made a long time ago. Not surprisingly, they find digital more cost effective across a number of fronts.

The obvious needs to be said here: digital production in no way inhibits users from printing out materials and reading them the old-fashioned way. It’s just that the cost of doing so, and the hassle of it to some degree, is now directly born by the print user and not by the larger economy. Pay as you go, as it were. With any luck, some of the hassle will get removed as print-on-demand devices become more common and more available so one could download an entire copy of a journal and have it printed and bound — that’s one of the satisfactions of hoisting a book that I don’t know the digital realm will ever replace.

I should be clear: I love books. I love the way they feel, smell, look. I paid my way through undergrad and parts of grad doing graphic design work. I love the printed page. But I’m also a realist, and we’re in serious need of a re-think about how all this goes. I know some will lament the loss of page numbers for citations, but what need the page number when you can search the text for the quotation yourself and get to it faster than flipping through pages and scanning paragraphs?