Kate Wittenberg, Director of the Electronic Publishing Initiative at Columbia, has an essay in the Chronicle Review urging scholars and their publishers to think about the implications of social networking software and student preferences when planning for the future. She thinks scholarly publishers need to stop spending their energies fighting the threat of losing control of their content and think creatively about the possibilities of interaction. In fact, she wonders if content is important, or “are the tools, functionality, and access built on top of the content what are of real value?”
We need to get serious about developing online publications that allow students to freely explore the vast array of content and tools available through the World Wide Web, while still allowing an appropriate level of guidance concerning how to select and evaluate the sources that they find. And we must look at methods to deliver and store content in ways that allow students to use their remote devices to access it and that work through and enhance the online communities where they spend so much of their time.
I agree whole-heartedly that there needs to be more collaboration among librarians, scholars, and publishers; after all, we’re in this together. But think about textbooks as a cautionary tale. Students have pretty much voted with their feet when it comes to electronically-enhanced textbooks. Forget the bells and whistles, give me the basics at a reasonable price, and let me sell the sucker back at the end of the year if I so choose. Some “enhancements” have the devilish habit of eliminating the students’ ability to do what they want with the material. And students are not buying it, literally.
And I also wonder – is it wise for publishers to develop “tools and functionality” that will guide its users down certain paths? As a reader, I tend to resist functionality other than the narrative provided by the author, which is the kind of guidance I’m happy to take. And it seems to me one of the most essential memes of social networking is that the way a text (or image or thought) will be used depends on what people choose to do with it.
So sure, let’s invent new approaches to publishing that enables students (and the students who will grow up to be our next generation of scholars) to find and use scholarly texts employing the tools they prefer. But don’t spend a lot of resources designing tools and layers of functionality. Give ’em the content and the freedom to use it, and they’ll do the rest.