WMA 2011: Session Overview and Presentations: The Book is Dead, Long Live the Book!

By: Alexandra Harris

The Book is Dead, Long Live the Book!

As 21st-century museum professionals, we recognize the need to expand access to our content using digital platforms. But what does that mean for us, beyond the labor of educating ourselves about e-books, apps, and mobile web, and implementing the technology? I’ve heard both the hype and the panic, and am choosing a measured approach; since I think you should, too, I organized a session for WMA ’11 on the topic of digital publishing called “The Book is Dead, Long Live the Book!” and invited publishing and digital media professionals to offer their thoughts on the issue: Ron Cox, director of the Bernice Pauahi Bishop Museum’s Library and Archives and the Bishop Museum Press; Nik Honeysett, head of administration for the J. Paul Getty Museum and member of AAM’s Board of Directors; and also included myself to introduce some points to ponder throughout the session and to provide perspectives as an editor at the National Museum of the American Indian (NMAI).

By the end of the year, the Bishop Museum Press will have fifteen titles converted into digital. Clearly, the Bishop is rising to the challenge of meeting what Ron referred to in his presentation as the “digital imperative.” Yet he also advocates for a balanced mix of print and digital. Management may advocate for wholesale transition (which for Hawai‘i’s oldest publishing house’s 350 titles is no mean feat), but it’s critical to consider other aspects of the museum’s operations. What is the message that we’re giving to our audience when we switch to digital?

This calculated methodology was echoed by Nik, who spoke more to the philosophy of digital publishing with a discussion of trends, observations, challenges, and solutions. New media elicits a visceral reaction, whether hype, frenzy, panic, or misperception. Digital will not displace print, but we must be prepared for the future to be a hybrid mixture of media—and this means greater complexity in the publishing process. What is the cure for our current digital shock and awe? According to Nik’s highly entertaining (because it’s true) Digital Publishing Threat Level system, our goal is to attain a certain “Kumbaya” about the whole thing: unconditional acceptance and support for digital publishing. Acknowledging change and hybridity is difficult; the anatomy of the book now includes media, writing includes links, and publications teams expand to include new media and web developers. Until we can reach this nirvana, however, we will have to assess and plan for it.

The NMAI’s publications office is in the process of doing just that. As a first attempt to understand the media, we are developing a white paper on the subject; not only for self-education but to inform our museum leadership as well. We’re asking ourselves some difficult questions, not least of which is whether our infrastructure and staff can handle the “digital imperative” at present. And what are the implications and investments if we contract out for these services? Other questions we are asking ourselves to evaluate our readiness:

  • Why do you need an e-book?
  • Do you need a print book, app, or mobile web access (QR codes) instead?
  • Which format would best serve both your audience and the content? (i.e., would this content work better as a mobile web site? See Stephanie Weaver’s westmuse article Going Mobile in Museums: Nancy Proctor posted on 02/20/10 for more info on the Smithsonian’s Museum Mobile Project.)
  • Is the motivation to jump into digital coming from your board or leadership?
  • Does your institution as a whole need a digital reality check (and a long-term plan)?

Most definitely, we need a long-term plan. For us, and for all of us, venturing into digital publishing requires just as much planning, infrastructure, and budgeting as any other major project. At the NMAI we’re still evaluating whether our more than 50 titles might be lucrative in the e-book market. If in the end it makes more sense to invest in one medium over another based on our audience’s and institution’s needs, then our focus will be on that platform as we expand into digital.

Take-away mantras: Take a measured approach to digital publishing. Let the content drive the medium. The future is hybrid. Content is moving digitally, as much as we embrace or reject it, so adaptation—expanding our communication to include digital in any way feasible—is going to be critical for communicating our content in the future.

Please check out our presentations below. My detailed notes are available if you click on the “View on Slideshare” button on the presentation frame.

Alexandra Harris
Editor, National Museum of the American Indian

Useful links:

The Horizon Report: 2010 Museum Edition

Aptara: The Gilbane Group, A Blueprint for Book Publishing Transformation, 2010: Concerns general publishing, but contains many good issues for museums to consider

The Transition to Online Scholarly Catalogues by Nik Honeysett: General e-publishing blogs that may be helpful in the learning process:

Teleread: current events in the e-book world

Gossamers: the basics

A New Kind of Book: design and functionality of e-books

The Ed Techie: educational technology and e-learning

The Book is Dead, Long Live the Book! [slideshare id=9543284&w=425&h=355&sc=no]

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