When I was scrambling to finish my dissertation in 1997, my audience was a five-member faculty committee, with the power to grant me either a doctoral degree, or another bill for tuition that I couldn’t afford. My desire to complete my degree to get a job, together with our nearly-depleted checking account, became a powerful motivator to write. But in my interdisciplinary graduate program, the challenge was to produce scholarship that would satisfy three historians, a sociologist, and a political scientist, including some who had already published important works on Milwaukee, Wisconsin, the city I had studied. My thesis, “More Than One Struggle,” explained how changes in social and power structures caused the rise and fall of various Black-led school reform movements during the twentieth century. I had recorded over sixty oral history interviews with three generations of civil rights activists in this city, but my writing spoke directly to the historians and social scientists at my dissertation defense, and the bodies of scholarly literature each of them represented. My work emphasized historical analysis for an audience of professors.
. . .this biographical emphasis must be done cautiously. First, I need to emphasize that individual leaders do not initiate nor represent an entire reform movement. As I make clear in the manuscript, the coalitions which form around leaders bring multiple voices, and sometimes conflicting agendas. Furthermore, as historians of the civil rights movement have documented elsewhere, the crucial work of movement support and protest was often carried out by women, who typically did not generate the official statements and speeches. (See full version of author’s response to reader report 1998)
More than One Struggle was published simultaneously in paperback and hardcover in 2004. It subsequently appeared as an e-book, first in platforms for academic libraries (such as ebrary), then for individual consumer purchase (Kindle). During this period I watched the publishing industry continue through tumultuous times (is it always this way?) while working on my second project, titled On the Line, which explores how civil rights struggles over schooling and housing boundary lines shaped the metropolitan region of Hartford, Connecticut over the past century. The digital revolution sparked questions in my mind. As a historian, what is the best way to create, share, and engage others in scholarly communication? In other words, what’s the best way to “publish” my second book — and exactly what do we mean by that term nowadays, given dramatic changes in print and digital platforms?
If academics embrace web-books and other innovative digital formats for scholarly communication (and that’s a big “if”), then we will need to grapple with proprietary versus public models, and their deeper implications for our work. Judging from the few examples at present, it appears that proprietary web-books will be designed to sell texts through a fee-based authentication system, while public web-books will offer open access to anyone who visits the site. Compare these closed and open systems on four dimensions that matter to scholars:
In a self-multiplying scholarly commons, some kind of assessment of the material being published (or having been published) remains important, but not because of scarce resources; instead, what remains scarce are time and attention. For this reason, peer review needs to be put not in the service of gatekeeping, or determining what should be published for any scholar to see, but of filtering, or determining what of the vast amount of material that has been published is of interest or value to a particular scholar. As Clay Shirky has argued, “Filter-then-publish, whatever its advantages, rested on a scarcity of media that is a thing of the past. The expansion of social media means that the only working system is publish-then-filter” (Here Comes Everybody 98). . . [Read this Fitzpatrick (2009) passage in context]
Now consider the same question about proprietary versus public web-books from the perspective of readers. This is especially important for civil rights scholars and other writers whose books tell stories about communities of people relegated to the margins of history. Do the activists who created this civil rights history have a right to read these stories in an accessible format? What about the present-day community members whose lives continue to be shaped by this history? Do they have the right to borrow a history book that their local library can reasonably afford, or a right to freely read it on a publicly accessible website? Taking it one step further, do these same activists and community members have the right to respond to an author’s interpretation of their history in the same forum it appeared in, such as a public web-book or journal?
Knowledge has the very nice property that it is enlarged by giving it away. As a person teaches, or perhaps researches on behalf of a community group, everybody learns more (Lloyd, circa 2002).
Anderson, James D. 1988. The Education of Blacks in the South, 1860-1935. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, and online by the LCRM Project https://lcrm.lib.unc.edu/voice/works/w/the-education-of-blacks-in-the-south-18601935
Jack Dougherty is an associate professor of educational studies at Trinity College in Hartford, Connecticut, where his teaching and research draw connections between educational history, policy, and practice in U.S. cities and suburbs. An earlier version of this essay was presented at the Imagining America: Artists and Scholars in Public Life conference in Seattle, WA, October 2010.
Jack Dougherty, “Storytelling and Civil Rights: From Dissertation to Book to Web-book,” Writing History: How Historians Research, Write, and Publish in the Digital Age, October 6, 2010, http://writinghistory.wp.trincoll.edu/2010/10/06/dougherty-storytelling/.