Thursday, October 28, 2010

"Why Books?" Conference Day 1 Recap

Today was the first of two days of the "Why Books?" conference, hosted by Harvard's Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study. This afternoon consisted of a series of site visits, small workshops and seminars on a variety of topics.

The first site visit I attended was "Challenges and Opportunities in the Emerging E-book Age," featuring Alexander Parker (Director of Research Computing in the Humanities at Harvard), Liza Daly (President of Threepress Consulting) and Emily Arkin (Editor for Digital Publications Development at Harvard University Press).

Parker led off, offering a capsule history of e-book technologies (and noting, as others have very astutely done, that reading technologies have pretty much always been in a state of flux and technological change). He added that it's misguided to think that e-books will "supplant" printed books, but that they may well throw the publishing and reading worlds into a period of uncertainty until things settle (he suggested that the media of printed books may find themselves becoming a more "refined delivery method" in years to come, but won't go away).

Parker added that he thinks that e-books are in their incunabular period (he's coined the term "e-incunabular" to describe this), and that we're still in the middle of the deluge of devices and formats that still have to shake themselves out and realize their full potential, &c.

Daly and Arkin discussed the various formats, accessibility and other components of today's e-books, specifically as they pertain to scholarly publishing. Arkin concluded by going through a variety of challenges and opportunities of e-books for a wide range of constituencies: readers, booksellers, publishers, authors, &c. Overall, she concluded, continuing to experiment and work with a wide range of formats, styles, techniques and business models is probably going to offer the best way forward for all concerned.

This was a good discussion, and very useful. I hope the panel will be posted to the web, because it certainly deserves a wide(r) audience.

The second panel I attended today was at the Harvard Law Library's special collections: "Interesting Characteristics." Librarian David Warrington displayed and explained some materials from the law school archives pertaining to early teaching methods and pedagogy at the Law School (teaching notes, student lectures, and annotated casebooks). Cataloger Mary Person had pulled out a selection of sixteenth-century English law books with interesting provenance notes: interleavings, manuscript indexes, marginalia, manicules and various other ownership markings and evidence of readership. My favorite was a work in which the owner had stitched little vellum tabs in the outer margins and written "subjects" on them - the tabs looked for all the world like the little colored Post-It notes that current readers stick into their books. Great stuff!

Tomorrow, the main event; I'll have a recap in the evening.