Gutenberg-e Enters New Phase

Gutenberg-e, the digital publishing project started in 1999 by the American Historical Association (AHA) and Columbia University Press, recently made the transition from a paid subscription model to free open access. The shift comes as the final set of scholarly manuscripts nears publication, bringing the total count of born-digital monographs to thirty-six.

Supported by grants from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, Gutenberg-e was conceived by Kate Wittenberg, Program Director of the Electronic Publishing Initiative at Columbia (EPIC), and Robert Darnton, who was at the time President of AHA and a history professor at Princeton University, now serving as Director of the Harvard Libraries. Under the program, authors were awarded prizes by the AHA to develop their dissertations for publication. This provided emerging scholars—who might otherwise have been wary of the untested e-book medium—with the prestige of a major award and an assurance of legitimacy conferred by an AHA endorsement.

"The experiment was to test a number of things, primarily, what opportunities born-digital narrative might offer scholars, as well as whether a peer-reviewed digital monograph that was published by a major university press would have the same weight in terms of academic promotion as a print peer-reviewed monograph," Wittenberg said.

The decision to take Gutenberg-e from a subscription-based to an open-access model comes as the final round of Mellon-funded monographs nears completion. At the close of the project, Gutenberg-e will have published 36 digital editions, of which 24 are now available online.

Serving as an early model of digital scholarly publishing, Gutenberg-e has given authors the opportunity to test the new possibilities provided by the medium. "The authors feel much more in charge of the design direction," said Nathaniel Herz, Production Manager of Electronic Publications at Columbia University Digital Knowledge Ventures (DKV). "Given that the technical possibility and what can be presented are really much greater than with a print book, they are encouraged to seek out multimedia materials to supplement the main text, and also to take a role in designing the book that they wouldn't have the opportunity to do in a traditional publishing model." Herz said that, while there was not a sense of authors directing production, there was more of a conversation as to what would best serve the monograph.

Given the rate of technology's progress, since its inception Gutenberg-e has seen a marked change in the digital publishing landscape and also the authors' facility with available media. "From a production standpoint, we are always trying to take advantage of new technologies and adapt to changing best practices. The books themselves have changed over time, both in what we allow the authors to present and in the overall design of the look and feel," Herz said. Wittenberg also observed that "over the six years of the project the more recent rounds of authors have been much more sophisticated in terms of their ability to use and their knowledge about technology."

"The first couple of years, when the prizes were given out, we ran these workshops to help authors figure out how to create these digital works. They would come in and sort of ask: How do I take digital pictures? Can you tell me what kind of a camera to buy? By the last couple years, authors are really already very far along in their thinking about the use of digital technology in terms of links to archives and the ability to show works in their original languages, and the inclusion of audio and video," she said.

Perhaps because of the democratization of internet development, where anyone can create his or her own web page cheaply and easily, there persists a popular myth that publishing online will represent a less expensive publishing model than traditional printed books. Wittenburg explained that this was not the case. "There are lots of advantages" to digital publishing, she said, "but everyone has found that it's not cheaper or easier. Every experiment—commercial and non-commercial, scholarly and non-scholarly—has found that the possibilities are so much greater and more exciting. But, on the flipside, the costs—at least right now in these early experiments—do not disappear, they increase.

"What never goes away is the need for peer review, for intensive work with authors. In fact, the author relationship gets more and more exciting but more intense as the complexity of the digital work increases. And that's one of the things that this project was actually designed to test. Now, going forward, there probably will be many more platforms and technologies, and authors' expertise will grow to make this increasingly simple. The challenge is how you pay for and maintain these exciting projects."

"One of the great values of this project," Herz added, "is that this will be something that other digital, academic, scholarly publications can look at and learn from, and in five or ten years I'm sure there will be many more ideas about how you can do this in a more efficient way.

"It's very exciting to be playing a part in a transition that is more or less inevitable to online publication. What exactly that will mean is still unclear, and this is an experiment along the way."

Shaun Manning
Communications Coordinator, AAUP