While stumbling my way through the world of academic publishing over the past decade, some important lessons — and enduring questions — have become clearer in my mind. Some lessons came directly to me as advice from more experienced authors, while some questions arose from observing what appears to be happening with the new wave of digital communication. I’m certainly not a prolific author, with just one book published and another in progress. And my perspective may differ from that of other historians, because my scholarly writing on twentieth-century schooling and civil rights bridges the past and present. In some cases, the people in my community-based studies are still alive, and sometimes have strong opinions about the past that may differ from my own interpretation. What follows are the lessons I have learned about storytelling and civil rights, and those I’m still learning.
From dissertation to book
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.
After voting to grant me a Ph.D. (pending another week of rewrites), individual faculty members took me aside to offer their personal advice on strategies for transforming the dissertation into a book. The junior historian of the group, who had most recently signed a book contract, coached me on how to approach editors and pitch my dissertation to match their current titles in civil rights history. The late 1990s seemed like a tumultuous time in the publishing world (or is it always this way?). Some of the academic press editors I contacted had been recently replaced by new staff who were driven more by sales than substance. Also surprising were the “unwritten rules” that encouraged simultaneous proposal submissions to book publishers, but not journal editors. (Much of what I learned about navigating this process was thoughtfully articulated by others in a 2006 H-Education guest discussion I moderated, titled “Book Publishing for Historians of Education”).
While revising my dissertation, the most influential advice I received about book authoring came from an external reviewer for the University of North Carolina Press, who urged me to re-frame my analytical dissertation into an historical narrative. This reviewer asked me to craft a more compelling storyline, featuring the lives of key historical actors to guide readers through six decades of complex social and political change. History should be driven by activists’ stories, this reviewer argued, not the historiographical argument. In my response to the readers’ reports, I laid out my initial plans to bring three (later, four) key individuals to the forefront, each representing a different generation of Black activism from the 1930s to the 1990s. But I was clearly nervous about this emphasis on narrative. Looking back on my response, I warned that featuring the tales of three male civil rights leaders might conflict with the underlying analysis:
. . .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)
Making storytelling central to my historical scholarship was valuable advice, but no one had ever taught me how to write this way. Had I been absent on the day we supposedly studied novel-writing skills in my graduate history seminars? Or was it my fault for taking too many social science and policy courses, rather than literature? Granted, I’m not a fast writer, but wrapping my head around rewriting my dissertation into a narrative, with all of my stumbles and false starts, added at least two more years to the process. My partner helpfully suggested that I envision the final product as an analytical narrative, a hybrid of storyline and argument, which fit well with my way of thinking.
Most important, revising the book manuscript in this way changed how I visualized the readers, from a narrow group of professors to a larger segment of the public. Writing community-based civil rights history means telling stories about real people — both elite and ordinary — who collectively sought to improve their world by challenging existing power structures. Recognizing my role in listening to activists’ oral testimonies, reading and analyzing historical documents, and re-telling these stories through my interpretive lens helped me to connect the book with broader audiences. Near the end of the revising process, I gained a much clearer sense of who I was writing for: not only the activists who were still alive or their family members, but for younger generations of readers — in Milwaukee and elsewhere — who are trying to make sense of where the recent history of race and urban school reform has taken them, and the directions in which they wish to move it forward in the future.
From book to e-book to web-book
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?
Many historians still favor printed books as a familiar and reliable mode for sharing knowledge. Books are a stable technology that do not rely upon internet access or operating systems. We enjoy the feel of books in the palms of our hands, the ease of reading wherever we choose to sit, and how they look when we stack up our acquired knowledge on our bookshelves. We can purchase them from local booksellers and online vendors, or borrow them from academic and public libraries (provided that these institutions continue to be supported by tuition and tax dollars). But one serious limitation of printed books is that they promote one-way scholarly communication of ideas, from author to audience. Information is disseminated to readers, who play no part in the knowledge-construction process, unless they also happen to discuss it in a class or book group, send a letter to the author, write a book review, or incorporate it into their own scholarship. Certainly, readers can take the initiative to dialogue with the author or other readers, but printed books, by themselves, are not designed to promote a two-way exchange of ideas.
In this regard, the current generation of e-books face the same problem as print books. Despite the potential of digital technology, the vast majority of today’s e-books enable one-way scholarly communication, from author to audience. One editor described e-books as “glorified PDF files,” and for the most part, he’s right. For example, my college library’s ebrary platform has helped me many times when I could not obtain a printed copy. After logging in to the authenticated network, books can be accessed through ordinary web browsers. Readers can flip pages, search for key terms in this book or across others on the same platform, and copy passages to use in our writing. Click to view the current format of a typical library e-book But that’s about as far as the digital revolution has currently taken e-books.
A third category of scholarly communication is digital history projects, often created by historians and/or archivists to disseminate primary source materials on the web. Two relevant examples for this essay are the Seattle Civil Rights and Labor History Project at the University of Washington, and the March on Milwaukee Civil Rights History Project at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee. (Disclaimer: The latter hosts selected oral history content from my first book.) Both of these digital history websites offer free public access to primary sources — documents, databases, photos, and videos — that traditionally would have been hidden deep inside a traditional paper-based archive, or might never have been collected in the first place. Also, since both projects feature the voices of activists from multiple perspectives in the civil rights movement, they suggest alternatives to one-way author-to-audience scholarly communication. Yet spend time browsing both of these digital history projects to be reminded why historians prefer books. Neither project was designed to provide a coherent historical narrative, an interpretive thread that weaves together the disparate pieces to tell us how and why they matter. We still favor books — print or digital — because the best of these tell us meaningful stories.
Given our growing experience with print and digital culture, can we imagine a better way to create and share scholarly knowledge? If we designed a format that encouraged writers and readers from different locations to interact, and learn from one another, what might it look like? Several examples already point the way toward this new category of scholarly communication, which I refer to as web-books, meaning socially networked texts that invite participants to read, reflect, and respond, using a typical online web browser. (Hint: You’re looking at a web-book right now.) Web-books seek to merge the best of conventional books and digital innovation: intellectual coherence and reader interactivity. But don’t let the technology overshadow the idea. What’s important here is to rethink how scholars communicate with our peers and the public, and to open up the process of constructing, sharing, and evaluating knowledge. The web is simply a tool to help make it happen more easily.
Several innovative web-book models have recently appeared in the humanities, and the most relevant example for historians is the Long Civil Rights Movement (the LCRM project) by the University of North Carolina Press. With Mellon Foundation support, UNC Press and its partner organizations developed the LCRM platform, which currently hosts 50 full-text civil rights history books, including digital tools that allow users to share paragraph-level comments, questions, and links with other readers. While the LCRM is designed to sell access to copyrighted books behind a subscription-based pay wall, free registration for the pilot version is currently open to faculty, librarians, and graduate students through December 2010. (For those without access, view the free LCRM demonstration video.)
How do readers actually interact with LCRM web-books? During the early months of this pilot phase, only a handful of texts have been commented upon, but the possibilities are intriguing. For example, Ansley Erickson arranged to register her undergraduate/graduate history of education class on the LCRM pilot platform, and assigned them to write paragraph-level comments on the first chapter of James Anderson book, The Education of Blacks in the South (1988). Without specific guidance, her students began to interpret the significance of the text in their eyes, and some directly or indirectly commented on other classmates’ entries. Those of us who have taught classes using a course management system (such as Blackboard or the open-source Moodle) may have already experienced students commenting on other students’ writing, in the same classroom. But what might happen if Erickson’s students wrote comments that were viewed — and commented upon — by students at another university, perhaps in the South? How might learning change?
Another disclaimer: My book also is available on the LCRM platform, and I have actively promoted this innovation during the free access pilot phase. In addition, the March on Milwaukee Civil Rights History Project and I have experimented with inserting thought-provoking questions and primary source links into the LCRM web-book edition, to encourage readers to make connections between the book and the digital history project. See this freely accessible compilation of questions we inserted into the More than One Struggle LCRM edition. Will readers respond to these ideas, or create their own connections, or ignore them altogether? We’ll have to wait and see.
Elsewhere in the humanities, innovative web-books have featured “open peer review” as a means to invigorate scholarly communication. MediaCommonsPress recently hosted an open review edition of a leading literary journal, Shakespeare Quarterly, where authors’ submissions received paragraph-level comments from about 40 readers, some who were self-selected and some experts invited by the editor. Both the Chronicle of Higher Education (Howard 2010) and The New York Times (Cohen 2010) reported on the success of this digital humanities experiment and compared it related trends in other academic fields, such as the sciences. Kathleen Fitzpatrick, a professor of media studies at Pomona College and a founder of MediaCommonsPress, previously released a full draft of her book manuscript, Planned Obsolescence: Publishing, Technology, and the Future of the Academy (2009), for open peer review in an agreement with her prospective publisher, NYU Press, which simultaneously sent it out for blind review.
Humanities scholars also can gain insights from socially-networked web-books such as Candide 2.0 (public commentary on Voltaire’s 1759 classic, hosted by the New York Public Library), and Hacking the Academy (a crowd-sourced book organized by the Center for History and New Media at George Mason University). Even those of us with limited computer skills can readily create web-books using open-source WordPress software plug-ins, such as digress.it and its predecessor, CommentPress. (Read more in our “How it Works” section.) Readers: please use the comment feature of this web-book to share your knowledge and recommend other scholarly web-books that encourage users to read, reflect, and respond.
Digital writing on the web offers several advantages over print and e-books. First, authors whose arguments rely upon evidence that cannot easily be captured in the text of a conventional book benefit from increased flexibility. Visual historians can link to images and video, economic historians can link to data sets, and spatial historians can link to interactive maps. (By contrast, Amazon’s current best selling historical e-books with audio and/or video clips provide only a limited selection of media content, packaged inside the proprietary book file, not linked to the public web.) By openly sharing historical source materials, web-based scholarship enables readers to examine the evidence and formulate their own interpretations, rather than relying solely on the author’s judgment.
Second, digital scholarship does not necessarily conflict with our desire to preserve the past and hold printed copies in our hands. Archival servers, stable “permalink” addresses, and thoughtful planning can maintain our web-based history, and our attachment to paper can be satisfied by “print-on-demand” services.
Third, socially networked web-books allow substantive and speedy communication between writers and readers. As authors, we cannot judge whether our own writing successfully communicates complex ideas without receiving some type of feedback from a wide range of audiences. When publishing an scholarly print or e-book, we generally have little idea how it was received unless a reader happens to contact us directly, or an academic journal prints a review, typically a year or two later. But online paragraph-level commenting and page-view data can tell us exactly which passages readers praised, panned, or never bothered to read.
Do scholarly authors really want to know what our readers think? What if they criticize our ideas on the very same digital pages we labored over? Do we genuinely wish to co-create and evaluate knowledge in public — or do we prefer our traditional norms of working in private? Of course, most of the web-book models cited above moderate comments to maintain civil discourse (and filter out spam). When attempting to explain this web-book concept to colleagues, I have found myself coining slogans like “when social media meets scholarship,” or worse, “the Academic Book meets FaceBook.” After the audience groans, I am the first to question whether or not this is a good direction for our scholarship to head, but I’m also willing to try and see what — if anything — might happen.
Proprietary versus public web-books
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:
1) Distribution and Access: Publishers can market proprietary web-books through their existing distribution channels, which are designed to match the right content with the right audience. But someone — either the individual reader or an institutional library — needs to purchase access to this proprietary product. By contrast, a public web-book is freely available on the internet, if readers know how and where to find it.
2) Status: Most scholars strive for higher status, which in publishing circles often means signing on with a more prestigious press. Gatekeepers to academic success — the deans and faculty committees that hire and tenure junior faculty — often operate with a loosely-defined pecking order of publishers, those at the top perceived as more selective than others. But these distinctions are blurry and subject to change with market conditions. Also, scholars (and everyone else) often confuse status with a different characteristic: quality.
3) Quality: We all agree that quality matters, but we lack agreement on how scholarly work should be judged (particularly in the humanities), and at what stage(s) of the publishing process it should happen. On one hand, academic presses employ editors and external reviewers to filter their products prior to publication, to signal that books meet their standards and are deemed worth reading. On the other hand, a public web-book reverses this equation by placing content onto the internet and relying on reader comments to sort out what is — and is not — worth reading, rather than market-driven publishing. Both exercise a form of peer review, but at different stages in the scholarly communication process. Fitzpatrick (2009) argues this point:
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]
4) Money: While some imagine academic publishing to be the meritocracy of scholarly writing, this ignores market forces. Given two equally “excellent” book manuscripts — one on a popular topic, and the other on an obscure one — which one is more likely to receive a rejection letter that praises the author’s work but bases its decision on the lack of a commercially viable market? Currently, most publishers — whether for-profit trade presses or not-for-profit academic presses — rely upon a stream of book sales revenue to pay for editorial, production, and marketing services. By definition, freely available resources on the web do not generate revenue, so publishers usually cannot afford to give away their proprietary products. Money is a most definitely a key factor, but one that needs to be separated from distribution & access, status, and quality.
For scholars weighing the merits of proprietary versus public web-books, which of these factors should we consider? It seems that we can quickly dispense with the money factor, based on current practices with print and e-book monographs. Correct me if I’m mistaken, but my understanding is that a moderately successful book published by an academic press sells around 1,000 copies. If we assume a royalty of 5 percent on books costing $30 each, this generates only $1,500 for the author, who is likely to have paid an equal sum in out-of-pocket expenses for photocopying, copyright permissions, indexing, etc. True, the financial payoff for a popular textbook or trade-press book is different, but most scholars did not get into this business for the money. Furthermore, I contend that scholars easily confuse status with quality, often preferring to let the relative prestige of a press to substitute for informed judgment about scholarship itself. The quality of a book is a separate issue from its format, whether print, e-book, or web-book.
For those still on the fence about proprietary versus public web-books, this brings us back to the first factor: distribution and access. As an author, my worst nightmare is to publish scholarship under an exclusive copyright contract that locks down my ideas in ways that make them nearly inaccessible to readers. All of us are watching the price of academic hardcovers steadily climb upward, with fewer guarantees of less inexpensive paperbacks on the horizon. Two years ago I saw one colleague’s hardcover-only book priced at $79, and two weeks ago, another colleague’s listed at $95. Have we reached the point where the price of a hardcover academic monograph costs more than Amazon’s Kindle reader? Some believe that e-books will save the publishing industry, but if licensing agreements hamper library access at the same time as their funding support is in jeopardy, then we risk losing an important segment of our audience. As an author, my priority is to write quality books that readers can easily access, not to play money or status games.
A public right to civil rights history?
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?
Of course, there is no right to knowledge in the US Constitution, but as the digital revolution continues, all scholars should consider the ethical implications of publishing our scholarship in proprietary versus public formats. In particular, civil rights historians should think twice about locking up a community’s stories behind subscriber-only pay walls, which restrict reader feedback to the members of libraries that can afford the fees, and whose voices will be heard.
Perhaps there is some middle ground that meets the interests of readers, authors, and publishers. I am intrigued by publisher’s free-access experiments such as UNC Press’s LCRM project, the University of Pennsylvania Press (which sold a print version of Dan Cohen and Roy Rosenzweig’s Digital History (2005) while agreeing to allow the authors to post a free online version), and the new business model illustrated by the University of Michigan Press and Library partnership on the “digital culture books” series, which are freely available online and sold in print under a Creative Commons license. Kathleen Fitzpatrick’s Planned Obsolescence appears destined to exist in two formats: a full draft of her book with commentary on a public website, and a proprietary final draft to be sold by NYU Press. When asked at a recent conference which one would be the authoritative version, Fitzpatrick wisely replied, “Both.” I can imagine a similar dual-format arrangement by academic publishers and scholars doing community-based research: a public web-book that community members can freely access through local libraries, and proprietary print and digital versions sold to broader audiences.
These are the questions on my mind as I draft chapters and prepare a preview of the On the Line public web-book, and face important decisions about the best way to publish in the digital era. Down the hall from my office, a friendly philosopher reminds me that:
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).
While I’m uncertain if this claim that sharing knowledge increases its value also covers chefs’ special recipes and national security secrets, it certainly applies to the field of history, especially civil rights. Years ago, when moving from dissertation to book, I learned that storytelling guides readers through the complexity of the past. Today, as I move further into digital scholarship, I am learning the importance of maintaining public access to read, reflect, and respond to our shared civil rights history.
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
Cohen, Patricia. 2010. For Scholars, Web Changes Sacred Rite of Peer Review. The New York Times, August 23. http://www.nytimes.com/2010/08/24/arts/24peer.html
Cohen, Dan, and Roy Rosenzweig. 2005. Digital History: A Guide to Gathering, Preserving, and Presenting the Past on the Web. University of Pennsylvania Press, and online by the Center for History and New Media http://chnm.gmu.edu/digitalhistory/.
Dougherty, Jack. 2004. More than one struggle : the evolution of Black school reform in Milwaukee. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, and online by the LCRM Project https://lcrm.lib.unc.edu/voice/works/w/more-than-one-struggle
Dougherty, Jack et al. 2006. Guest Discussion: Book Publishing for Historians of Education. H-Education network. http://www.h-net.org/~educ/H-Education-publishing-discussion.htm.
Dougherty, Jack. 2010. On The Line: How Schooling, Housing, and Civil Rights Shaped Hartford and its Suburbs (preview edition). http://ontheline.trincoll.edu/.
Fister, Barbara. 2010. Blog U.: Why There’s No Kindle “Freedom” in Libraries. Inside Higher Ed. September 24. http://www.insidehighered.com/blogs/library_babel_fish/why_there_s_no_kindle_freedom_in_libraries.
Fitzpatrick, Kathleen. 2009. Planned Obsolescence: Publishing, Technology, and the Future of the Academy. MediaCommons Press. http://mediacommons.futureofthebook.org/mcpress/plannedobsolescence/, and forthcoming by NYU Press.
Gregory, Jim et al. Seattle Civil Rights & Labor History Project. http://depts.washington.edu/civilr/.
Howard, Jennifer. 2010. Leading Humanities Journal Debuts ‘Open’ Peer Review, and Likes It. The Chronicle of Higher Education, July 26. http://chronicle.com/article/Leading-Humanities-Journal/123696/.
Lloyd, Dan. 2002. Street Rigor: Service Learning in the Liberal Arts. Unpublished essay, Hartford, CT: Trinity College.
New York Public Library. 2010. Candide 2.0: The Networked Edition. May. http://candide.nypl.org/text/.
Oder, Norman. 2009. Mixed Answers to “Is It OK for a Library To Lend a Kindle?”. Library Journal. April 7. http://www.libraryjournal.com/article/CA6649814.html.
Rowe, Katherine, editor. 2010. Open Review: Shakespeare and New Media. Shakespeare Quarterly, hosted by MediaCommonsPress http://mediacommons.futureofthebook.org/mcpress/ShakespeareQuarterly_NewMedia/.
Scheinfeldt, Tom, and Dan Cohen, eds. 2010. Hacking the Academy, hosted by Center for History and New Media. http://hackingtheacademy.org/.
University of North Carolina Press. The Long Civil Rights Movement Project. https://lcrm.lib.unc.edu/voice/works/.
University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee. The March On Milwaukee Civil Rights History Project. http://www4.uwm.edu/libraries/digilib/march/.
About the author:
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.
How to cite this page:
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/.
This web page from Writing History: How Historians Research, Write, and Publish in the Digital Age is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 3.0 License. You may freely distribute this work under the same terms for non-commercial purposes, but you must include a citation similar to the one above.