What I’ll Say

I’m working on what I expect to say tomorrow at the Society for Scholarly Publishing’s conference. I had a short conversation with the panel convener, and she had some fairly specific angles in mind for me to cover. I likewise had a chance to benefit fro Dorothea’s expertise — if I don’t look like a rube when another panelist refers to “gold” or “green” solutions, it’ll be because Dorothea tipped me off.

The moderator would like me to speak about my role “in the creation, dissemination and use of content,” and “the scope of the content with which I work (discipline(s), content formats (datasets, images, manuscripts, books, journals, etc.).” Answers to those two questions themselves could fill much of the fifteen minutes I’ve been allotted. I write books, articles, sermons, classroom lectures, informal [blog] essays, and utterly casual online observations, and I badger colleagues into preparing and offering essays and teaching materials, published both online and in print. The motivations vary for all of these, but at their heart they all involve my active participation in the conversations directed toward truth. I get paid for relatively few authorial gestures, and get paid relatively little for those. The richest reward for my authorial and editorial activity comes from appreciative readers who take my writing seriously enough to take it up critically, respond in kind, and provoke me to seek truth more vigorously, or more soundly, or more precisely. Some of that happens when congregations talk with me about the sermon I just preached; some of that happens when colleagues and students talk with me about the books and articles I’ve written; some of that happens when other bloggers, or commenters, or readers who leave no trace of their online activity push back, applaud, link, or otherwise incorporate my writing into their discursive activity.

As such, I contribute to print books and journals, I write online, I produce graphical elements for communicating my ideas (online and in print), and I perform my writing in live oratory; my creative work can be bought at bookstores, downloaded in mp3, html, pdf, and jpeg formats.

“What,” (asks my moderator, “are the absolute basic requirements for electronic information for the user community that you serve?” That’s tricky, since I address such varied user communities. Ease-of-access constitutes a basic requirement for some of them; standards-compliant mark-up constitutes a basic requirement for others.

“How does the projected use of content drive your presentation/delivery of that content to the user?” I don’t have the leisure to modulate these in a fine-grained way. Most of what I do — what I say in class, what I write for publication, what I post online, what I preach, I shape with a view to the primary audience, nuanced by by awareness of the various secondary audiecnes of which I’m aware. But I don’t produce many different versions of the projects I produce (at most, I offer both html/xml/jpeg and pdf versions of online publications). I try to hew close to standards-compliance, so that my materials will be most useable on the most various devices, but I don’t have time to adhere fastidiously to every element of open-access XML-pure conventions.

In my world — computing among humanities professionals and students — granularity would contribute to ease of use, but the cost of the transition from familiar publishing models to markup-savvy electronic publication inhibits our encountering a rich, orderly information environment. Among my colleagues and students, very few are prepared to learn a new vocabulary and syntax for querying databases. They prefer to endure frustration at the hands of a few proprietary megadatabases, or to rely simply on Google, to wrapping their brains around an unfamiliar way of parsing, tagging, and retrieving information. Great as the benefits would be, they lie beyond the line-of-sight of most of the academics among whom I move. An increasing number of academics have dipped their toes into the strange new world of information at the level of blogs, perhaps even of podcasts — but we’re still a tiny minority, and even the toe-dippers tend to look glassy-eyed if you take them to the rarefied topics of wikis, standards, or audio- or video editing, publishing, and retrieval.

I expect that “the plethora of interfaces, extensions and widgets on the Web [will affect] information, educational and research environments” in theology and the humanities, but we will probably dawdle behind other academic areas. The romance of book-based research has a tremendous grip on the imagination of my guild.

The greatest need I anticipate involves enhancing user-orientation of database tools. Someone just questioned me about bibliographic tools, and I found myself probing the specific fields in which the researcher worked, her comfort level with database editing, the output formats she expected to be need — and this was a scholar whom I knew to be capable of constructing well-formed queries.

I’ll probably digress to cover other topics as well, but those are the top ones that occur to me right offhand.

1 comment / Add your comment below

  1. Fortunately or un-, open access is far from format-pure. Most of what I preserve is PDF these days. I’m learning to live with it.

    Some of the problems you mention are well within the purview of libraries to solve. Do you not have instruction librarians where you are?

    Good luck. I hope they listen well.

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