A Conference is a Place: Tools of Change 2009 and Other Interesting Meetings

In February, I attended the third O'Reilly Tools of Change for Publishing conference (TOC) at the Times Square Marriott Marquis in New York. I found myself thinking that the ecstatic vision of a changed human relationship with "content" is growing stale apace, even as e-publishing platforms, models, and devices become a more workable reality.

As the economic picture seemed to get bleaker each day, it was mildly surprising how few of the sessions made reference to how the changing financial climate may affect not only publishers' ability to retool, but readers' desire to pay for gadgets and access. To be fair, this conference (like some others we're familiar with!) suffers from an embarrassment of interesting session topics scheduled concurrently, so I hope that I simply missed the speakers who addressed the economic downturn. And once again the buzz of interest in the hallways and breaks and the information about new platforms and working models shared freely by the attendees more than balanced out the occasional empty blast of rhetoric.

As I wandered from session to session with a (paper) notebook and a cranky PDA that refused to log on to the conference WiFi, my fellow attendees demonstrated the power of one "tool of change" as they twittered up a storm. While drinking in the tips and stories from one set of panelists, anyone with a connected laptop, netbook, or the ubiquitous iPhone freely eavesdropped on the other sessions. In one respect, this was fantastic—you didn't have to miss much. In another, it easily led to what one such equipped colleague ruefully termed "session envy" as I shamelessly peered over her shoulder to get a look at what was going on down the hall. (Interestingly, in May a paper analyzing the effect active twittering has on academic conference attendees was released.)

Fortunately, it is still possible to virtually attend many of the sessions, and at more than 140 often-cryptic characters at a time, too. The TOC 2009 web site makes available videos of many of the sessions, presentation files, and access to lively and continuing discussions via the conference blog, Twitter, and Facebook page. Go to http://www.toccon.com/toc2009 for an immersion into the events and ideas of the conference. If that's not enough, the 2010 TOC is scheduled for February 22-24 in New York City.

One of the videos available is of Bob Stein's talk "A Book is a Place..." Stein, founder of the Institute for the Future of the Book, spoke of his concept of a book as a place to meet and discuss and learn; it's a concept that the Institute's projects—CommentPress, Sophie, and the networked books they've supported—have all been reaching for. The day before the Tools of Change Conference began, Stein hosted a small meeting of mostly scholarly publishing representatives and the CEO of GiantChair, a Paris-based digital distribution platform. The group, including folks from NYU, MIT, Duke, the Michigan Office of Scholarly Publishing, and California amongst others, brainstormed about the role of publishers and possibilities of collaboration both upstream and down in a digital book environment.

It was clear that the usual suspects will continue to dog university press and other scholarly e-initiatives: sorting out rights and the dirty question of financial support. But it was also clear that local realities could lead to successful ventures for university presses. Harvard shared a bit of their experience launching the Journal of Legal Analysis, an open-access, peer-reviewed journal of law scholarship supported by and developed from the university's law school. California indicated that they had seen—and filled—a need by developing a suite of publication services available to units across the California system, UCPubS. Both of these initiatives are fairly new, and each press is waiting to judge its effects, but they are hopeful signs of the innovation and cooperation possible amongst the scholarly communications community.

Brenna McLaughlin
Electronic & Strategic Initiatives Director, AAUP