More wired than a Roman Internet café
After the first full day at Medieval Congress in Kalamazoo, I am both amazed and befuddled. I took a few breaks from selling books to walk around the exhibition hall to talk to other people who were selling books. Of the dozens of vendors exhibiting at North America's largest conference on Medieval studies, only three had anything to do with technology: Bolchazy-Carducci Publishers with its Artes Latinae self-teaching Latin software, Christianity and Culture (University of York) with software detailing Pilgrims and Pilgrimage, Images of Salvation, and the Virtual Basilica of Saint Fracncis of Assisi, and perhaps the highlight of the show, the Western Michigan University Libraries Digitization Center. The Center provides digitzation services for high-resolution scanning of manuscripts for scholarly research, conservation, preservation, and hopefully the sharing of this content on-line via some kind of Internet subscription.
I walked past stall after stall of books, beautiful hardbound books, antiquarian and contemporary, mostly non-fiction, primarily academic, from publishers like Cambridge University Press, Cornell University Press, and others wondering all the while just where the eBooks were. Where are the web sites providing this scholarship on-line? Why are publishers continuing to spend money on exorbitant printing costs on books for a niche market when the same scholarship can be produced cheaply via the Web or CD (now increasingly DVD) that actually encourages portability and makes it easier for scholars to (in the case of PDF eBooks), add personal notes to the text, run basic and complex searches, and even read more effectively via the ability to increase page-size on-screen. You can't do that with a book.
I do understand the deep love of buying printed books, but at the same time, we need to explore an electronic avenue of more efficient production of quality scholarship to reach a world-wide audience. It's good for the science and good for the planet. It's good economics. Publishers must lead the way in exploring the potential of (and ultimately mining) born-digital titles. I believe that the next generation of scholars who buy their entertainment digitally will expect the same from the producers of the works they need for research. As for books already in print, each publisher should seriously consider converting all of their titles to eBooks in the name of preserving their content while making these titles (even OOP titles) easily available on-line. But who makes the first move: publishers, authors, scholars? I think it will fall on the shoulders of the publishers to initiate the change. We will see a revolution here in how content is provided to its consumers and how that will ultimately change the world of scholarly publishing, I think for the better.