Digitizing the History of Psychology, Part 2

Amazon KindleOne of the benefits of the APA’s “Akron Project” (at AHP here) is that it will make rare books and grey literature more accessible.  This will make it easier for psychologists to “do history” and for students of psychology to engage with the foundations of their discipline.  But at what cost?

The gizmo they’re using at AHAP, bought new, is rumoured to carry a price tag of around  $300,000.  If APA hadn’t rented the two they’ve been using since the project started in 2007, that amount would translate into a fixed cost contribution of ~$0.60 per scanned page (plus the marginal costs of labour and electronic delivery).  These costs are tangible.  What about the intangibles?

What about the cost of replacing the book as a content-delivery device?

This is the question posed by Christopher Conway in the latest issue of Inside Higher Ed:

The commodity of the book, as we have known it for the last few decades, is vanishing and being replaced by new electronic media. Paper-and-binding books have irrevocably begun to fade away as products of mass consumption and will soon transform themselves into curios like vinyl records. The age of the massive emporium bookstore is coming to an end under the crushing, virtual weight of the Internet. Amazon’s Kindle e-book reader is doing well and it promises to get better and cheaper in the future….  And worst of all, if you’re a paper-and-binding book lover such as myself, people are reading less paper than before.

For those of us who love the materiality of history, it’s certainly true that books have a certain hold on the imagination.  When a book is imbued with its own history, when what you hold is more than its contents, it seems almost to sing—a soul greater than the hum of its parts.  The feel and the smell and the dust, strangely, is part of the experience.  It connects you to everyone else who has touched that volume; in a small way, it also makes you part of the history experienced by future readers.

Does it matter that we are becoming increasingly able to separate our historical texts from their history? What do we lose in leaving the book behind?

CHPPart of the success of the Classics in the History of Psychology collection (over 12 million visits recorded 1995-2006) is its unambiguous demonstration of the demand for historical texts: it addressed a need when no one else was willing and, through its success, proved the digitize-and-distribute model now being implemented by APA.  Although the number of new acquisitions has dropped off substantially in recent years, the service is still enormously popular.  And such services are incredibly valuable, as Conway points out:

It is becoming increasingly easier to put together affordable ‘readers’ or anthologies culled from existing print material without bypassing rights and fees and without overloading students with unnecessary expense. If this wave of the future takes hold and becomes the new standard in textbook publishing, I think it will be good for all parties involved.

His lamentation over the death of the book, it seems to me, is therefore a result of the incompleteness of the digital revolution.  There’s still a long way to go before paper is no longer the preferred medium for teaching and scholarship.

To make the grade, on budget, students are still making due with poor-quality photocopies; publishers, recognizing that most people print their PDFs, don’t bother to produce high quality online versions of their printed material (at AHP here).  And although Amazon’s interactive e-book reader — the Kindle — is indeed selling out in the US, educational institutions aren’t even close to the “early adopter” phase in supporting it.  Until there’s a real option for the replacement of the book, students will continue to demand that the papers they are required to buy be cheaper, more accessible, and easier to use.

There’s a long way to go before we can share in Conway’s dream, while at the same time avoiding his nightmare.

If the paper and binding book vanishes as a dominant commodity, as it seems to be, maybe the new virtual system of book distribution, reproduction and delivery will allay some of the problems I describe in relation to photocopies and PDFs.

The fact is, because most students usually only want short-term access to the content on which they will be examined, any attempt to increase accessibility is a good thing.  And the Classics in the History of Psychology collection has proved that instructors are willing to use online resources instead of assigning readings from books. But will this move toward “digitize-and-distribute” ultimately kill the book as a content-delivery device?

Not likely.

The distinction between owning a book and using its content is like the distinction between owning a car and using public transportation.  Sometimes, the increased cost is worth it; convenience has a price.  But as the public infrastructure gets better, the allure of private ownership declines.  Someone still has to provide the ride, but the total cost can be shared across the entire riding population.

In short: books will never die, but — like the collections of personal correspondence and unpublished manuscripts to which researchers  occasionally need to make a pilgrimage — they may become more of a luxury.

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About Jeremy Burman

Jeremy Trevelyan Burman is a senior doctoral student in York University’s Department of Psychology, specializing in the history of developmental psychology and its theory (especially that pertaining to Jean Piaget). Prior to returning to academia, he was a producer at the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation.

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