Who reads geography and history any more? This was the question at the heart of William Cronon’s plenary lecture for the British Academy for the Social Sciences and Humanities at the 2015 International Conference of Historical Geographers. Specifically, Cronon spoke about the challenges (or threats) that digital communication technologies pose for historians and geographers.
This is ground Cronon has covered previously in his excellent series of blog posts on the American Historial Association’s Perspectives on History. You can read a version of his thoughts on history in the digital age here. Cronon outlines the urgent need for historians and geographers to take seriously the numerous changes that digital technologies have facilitated in reading behaviour. He encouraged the audience to embrace our roles as storytellers, but to rethink the formats those stories might take. The book still reigns supreme in the disciplines of history and historical geography, but the role of the book has changed in the context of digital reading.
While there were a number of small points with which I did not fully agree (Cronon used the word “threat” more than the word “opportunity”), I was overwhelmingly sympathetic to Cronon’s main points. Digital reading has already changed communication and to see an example you can see here. For environmental historians, this began with the development of the H-Net email listservs which “virtualized” collegial exchange, discussion, and debate in the 1990s. While some scholars may lament the transition to reading on screens, the truth is that even those scholars likely do at least half of their reading (or more) on smartphones, tablets, and laptop/desktop monitors. The train has already left the station.
The NiCHE website has been publishing Canadian enviornmental history content for more than a decade now. And we have written about the need for environmental historians to rethink scholarly communication in the digital age. In particular, I wrote several blog articles in a series called Notes on Knowledge Mobilization between 2009-2011 that explored issues of copyright, open-access publishing, and digital reading. I even wrote a review of the iPad when it came out and examined its potential implications for historians.
Outside of scholarly monographs, the NiCHE website may just be the single largest publication in Canadian environmental history. And we could do much more with it. In his remarks last night, Cronon strongly suggested that historians and geographers explore a range of publishing formats from long-form to short-form and everything in between. Taking a cue from Cronon, I think we can find models for diverse content distribution strategies that already work on the Web. I will close this post with three that come to mind:
- Amazon Kindle Singles – For a few years now, Amazon has sold essay and novella-length publications in its Kindle self-publishing program. Environmental historians could easily do the same. There are many stories we can tell that may be too short for a monograph, but too long for a journal article.
- Netflix – This might not be obvious, but stick with me. Netflix is a video-streaming service so its connections to scholarly publishing are limited. But the distribution model for Netflix holds many lessons for scholarly publishing. Netflix is available anywhere and everywhere. In the past few years, Netflix has infected nearly every internet-connected device on the planet. You can now watch Netflix on a TV, smartphone, tablet, and even a Nintendo 3DS! This is the type of widespread distribution journals should strive for. It doesn’t matter how people read our content. What matters is that they can read our content. The challenge is to make it available in as many formats as possible to reach the many different ways that people now read in the digital age.
- iTunes – Again, the connection to scholarly publishing may not be obvious here. One of the many things iTunes did to the music industry was disrupt the model of the album. After the ascendency of iTunes as the world’s largest music store, listeners moved away from the album and back to the single. I think the same is true for the digital publication of journals. Many journals still publish under the assumption that the print version of the journal is the primary way that readers encounter its content. We still worry over the ordering of articles within quarterly issues when most readers never see a complete issue and read it cover to cover. Instead, digital publication of journals has moved readers away from the “album” and toward the “single.” We read particular articles and jump from issue to issue. If this is now the case, why do journals still publish in quarterly issues? Why still publish albums when we are all just listening to singles?
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Much food for thought here, Sean. Too bad that Cronon, who’s argued so ably against declensionism in the past, should be a little gloomy when assessing the possibilities of digital scholarship.
I’d like to pick up on your Netflix comparison, particularly the desirability of making scholarship available in multiple formats to match diverse reading habits. I think this applies to non-textual scholarship too. For example, I like the idea of podcasts, but I also find it hard to listen to them regularly. This is partly because I’m an impatient media consumer, and, like many academics, a fast reader. I’d rather skim through a detailed blog post or piece of long-form journalism in 3-5 minutes than spend 30-60 minutes listening to a podcast.
What if podcasts made an effort to cater to multiple audiences — readers as well as listeners — by publishing edited highlights of their episodes as texts alongside their audio files, or by producing other kinds of texts to complement particular episodes? At Canadaland, for instance, Jesse Brown occasionally does print Q&As (like today’s mind-blowing one with Paul Watson). He also sometimes publishes “episode rundowns” that double as summaries of the content discussed.
Although this approach would involve more editorial work, it might enhance both the reach and appeal of a given podcast’s content. It might also help to make podcasts more accessible to a wider range of scholars and laypeople (e.g. members of the Deaf community). Perhaps these kinds of hybrid initiatives are already underway, and if so I’d love to learn more about them.
I really like the Canadaland Q&As and the idea of shorter podcast episodes. It does add new editorial work, but it seems potentially worthwhile. What you’re suggesting makes a lot of sense.
I’ve tried to apply the Netflix distribution model to Nature’s Past, that is to say, I’ve tried to publish the podcast in as many places as possible so that listeners can access it in almost every possible manner that audio files are distributed on the internet: browser, iTunes, YouTube, raw RSS, direct download, etc… This is an approach I’d like to see journals apply.