Open Access to History @ Columbia UP

Who knew? Columbia made a previously subscription-only history book project open access. Maybe Harvard’s news, and the press it generated, led them to tell us about it. From today’s Chron (subscription required, no pun intended):

Without much fanfare, Columbia University Press has radically restructured Gutenberg-e, its high-profile experiment with digital history monographs, from a subscription-only series to an open-access model. The 36 titles will also be available—in somewhat different form, and enhanced with related scholarship—through Humanities E-Book, a subscription-only collection of digital versions of humanities monographs administered by the American Council of Learned Societies, or ACLS.

The Columbia press has been quietly making the monographs freely available since late fall, but the association announced the news on its blog only this month. Gutenberg-e’s switch to open access highlights some of the financial and logistical difficulties that can hamper attempts to establish a viable e-monograph series in the humanities—not that many have yet tried.

Turns out making enhanced digital versions cost quite a bit of money, and those expenses were not made up for by savings in traditional printing and shipping. Scholars, too, preferred to shop their projects for publication as books. Permissions and marketing also have different challenges – securing permission to reproduce an image or passage in a book is much easier than for digital distribution.

There will still be an enhanced subscription-based version of the books. I don’t know the details of this, but I’m growing a little weary of libraries paying for special versions while the great unwashed who aren’t affiliated with an institution that can afford it are stuck with a free budget version. Why the duplication of effort? We’re deliberately creating our own digital divide. But that’s the subject of another post.

Author: Barbara Fister

I'm an academic librarian at Gustavus Adolphus College in St. Peter, Minnesota. Like all librarians at our small, liberal arts institution I am involved in reference, collection development, and shared management of the library. My area of specialization is instruction, with research interests also in media literacy, popular literacy, publishing, and assessment.

4 thoughts on “Open Access to History @ Columbia UP”

  1. This is fascinating for a lot of reasons – beyond the project itself. I wonder if the decision to make these available openly was seen as a failure somehow before Harvard? So interesting that they’re just now publicizing it.

    I do wish the site was easier to use. I know there’s only a handful of titles there now, but I found it really hard to navigate through even that limited number. There’s no browse, and the search doesn’t treat these like cohesive books – you get a result list full of chapters and illustrations. It makes me wonder if part of what the “haves” get with their subscription-only services isn’t so much the content but instead those things I associate with librarians – harnessing the metadata associated with these books to make them more find-able and more useful?


  2. That’s weird. I wonder if it’s simply an oversight?

    They all have very different formats, too – I gather to experiment with digital formats, but it’s got to take a lot of extra work to have such different designs.

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