Why I still choose to publish in print

I am an advocate for digital solutions. This is kind of an obvious statement for those who have been following The Digital Orientalist. I love the digital aspect of our work in those early and middle stages of research: data collection and data analysis. I also get enthusiastic about discussions of the private workflow that is larger than a single project: data storage and data management. For much of my work, then, I enthusiastically and consciously live and work in the digital world. 

But when it comes to conclude a project and produce my deliverables, I still turn to the print world, and I consider only ‘publications’ as a real and valid product of my hard work. Indeed, I notice I bake into the very structure of my projects a natural expectation that I will deliver printed, paper publications. A great example is my handbook Among Digitized Manuscripts: Philology, Codicology, Paleography in a Digital World, which Brill from Leiden is publishing in the Handbuch der Orientalistik series. Why did I do so?

The core idea is that we don’t (or shouldn’t) publish in a vacuum. Our work takes on meaning in its context. This is in first instance the people whom we cite in our publication, but is equally the exact way we publish. Since my book is an introduction to digital methods and a fundamental discussion of the shift our work is undergoing now that we work with digitized manuscripts, I think I could have easily published it with a publisher catering to a wider audience and/or in a ‘digital humanities’ series. But part of the argument I am trying to make with my book is that digital methods are not for the happy few. They are not take it or leave it, and digital humanities is not a field of its own that can be ignored. Digital methods are in part already integrated in the work we do, no matter how classical (or downright old-fashioned) our methods and subjects may be. This integration knows only one direction: there will be more of it. And so I wanted to convey the message that talking about the digital aspect of our work is becoming a normal part of our discourse that concerns all of us. It will be the first time actual lines of code of a programming language will be typeset in an HdO book. It will be the first time the word ‘digital’ makes it into the title of an HdO book. It will certainly not be the last. Exactly to emancipate digital methods from its own quarantined field of DH and integrate them into each of the classical fields of the humanities, we will need to keep publishing in print into the foreseeable future.

Next to this argument from context, I also think that a book was the right format when considering the sheer amount of knowledge I had to convey all at once (and by this I mean: a lot). To discuss the differences we are facing now that we work with digital surrogates of manuscripts rather than the material artifact, and to discuss those differences in their entirety and satisfactoryily, takes up a lot of space. Even though I also give talks and workshops on the subject, to discuss this topic properly and thoroughly, writing it down is the only way to do it well. And even though the digital world has arguably made all of us read and write a whole lot more than before, it does best with shorter texts. Thus, it was far better to put my writing onto paper. This is not to say that that should be the end of it. I am very happy that my book will be available for sale as a hardback book, but also available for free in electronic open access. As an extension of the book I have set up the website www.github.com/Among which is a gateway to other resources, such as an online workshop, podcast episodes, YouTube videos, and lists of links to useful resources. Brought together, students and scholars will be able to start with the more familiar (a physical book, electronic journal articles) and work their way up to the slightly unexpected (podcast episodes, YouTube videos), to eventually reach the completely new (serverside hosted Python notebooks in which they are able to type and execute code). 

There is another argument in favor of print and this has to do with how future proof I wish my deliverable to be. For smaller projects with smaller outputs, I am less concerned with the preservation of it into the future. I am satisfied with the result being a blog post, online video, or a piece of software (such as a digital edition). If I put more effort into it I want to have a better assurance of perpetuity, both in preservation and functionality. I mean that I wish the output, the deliverable, to be available for a very long time, findable in a straightforward manner and not only that but I also wish that if people do indeed find it after many years, that it will still function as intended. A journal article published electronically fulfills this role quite well, or so is my intuition. For a large project such as my Among project, in which the deliverable is very big, I want to be maximally sure that what I do now is not for naught. To me, a printed, paper book remains the gold standard for this. There is still so much flux in the digital world, both in terms of file formats and in terms of academic infrastructure, that it remains to be seen how long this ‘perpetual electronic open access’ will keep my book available for download freely. But in the print carnation of my book, I know university libraries around the world will take it into their collections and I know it can sit on the shelve for many years and it requires only picking up for it to work just as well as it does right now.

I therefore think there is absolutely no shame in publishing in print. It fulfills specific requirements that digital resources have a hard time meeting.

About Cornelis van Lit

DH and Islamic Studies. Founder of The Digital Orientalist. Follow me @LWCvL on Twitter or GitHub

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