On 8 September 2010, in the foyer of the Robert Blackwood Hall at Monash University, beneath the beautiful ‘Alpha and Omega’ stained-glass window created by Leonard French and connoting humankind’s endless striving for achievement, Monash University ePress became Monash University Publishing. It was very appropriate that the press should be launched by Barry Jones, author of Sleepers Wake! (1982), the ground-breaking and prescient work on the need for societies to adapt to the coming information revolution; chair of Senator Kim Carr’s Book Industry Strategy Group; and long-time advocate of more ambitious education and social policy.
The establishment of the press is significant for Monash. For the first time, Monash has a publishing imprint that purports to represent the university as a whole. In time, it is hoped, this new publishing imprint will come to represent the diverse research interests of this and other higher education institutions.
Monash University Publishing is also significant in publishing terms. It represents a still somewhat experimental attempt to find a print-plus-electronic business model that makes use of contemporary developments in digital technology to fulfil the long-established mission of the university press: to disseminate knowledge far and wide.
Notably, this publishing venture is based in Monash’s Matheson Library. Libraries are well positioned to engage with the new forms of knowledge-delivery that digital technology is driving; they have been doing so for many years. A number of university presses housed in libraries overseas, particularly in the United States, have stood as initial exemplars: using new technologies and drawing on their knowledge of scholarly communication, and their place in the university as an independent centre, to provide a publishing outlet for their universities. In Australia, the ANU E Press and university presses at Adelaide, Swinburne, Sydney and UTS are, like Monash University Publishing, located in their respective institution’s library, physically or administratively. Don Schauder and others were based in an RMIT Library unit when, in the late 1980s and early 1990s, they pioneered the building of electronic bibliographic databases in Australia and paved the way for the successful development of RMIT Publishing.
This trend towards the housing of university publishers in libraries can be seen as exemplifying the wider shift taking place within and around libraries themselves (and again driven, primarily, by digital technology). No longer simply storehouses of information, libraries are playing an active role in facilitating access to knowledge and even in disseminating it.
For quite a while I was personally sceptical about the supposed degree of social transformation that digital technology was going to bring. I can remember being pleased, and slightly comforted, in the early 1990s, when I read a scholar such as Cees Hamelink suggesting (from memory), ‘The fact that millions of people can fiddle with their home computers doesn’t change anything.’
While the odd futurist still manages to make a barely honest dollar by telling us over and over again, without providing any detail, that things are going to change more than we less wired individuals can imagine, it seems clear that talk of a ‘digital age’ is not hyperbole. Digital technology will continue to transform our lives in profound ways; which is also to say, in seemingly mundane and everyday ways that can only be seen to be profound when we step back from them.
Millions of people fiddling with their home computers (and iPhones, BlackBerries, e-reading devices, etc.) may not change everything, but it certainly changes something. The massive expansion of the World Wide Web, in particular, is a large part of the reason why Monash University Publishing and comparable scholarly publishers are placing such an emphasis on making their content available online. Maximising readership and impact demands this.
The existence of the web platform does not mean that costs of production have gone away, or even necessarily decreased, or that publishing has been simply ‘democratised’ (XML workflows, in particular, demand highly specialised knowledge and sometimes expensive technology). It also does not mean that the future for books and readers is now clear-cut, or anything like it. But digital technology is here to stay, and does require an open and thoughtful approach to understanding social change and, equally, to doing business successfully.
Technologies, of course, come and go – or at least have their day in the sun. French’s ‘Alpha and Omega’ window reminded me that the book itself (or the codex, more precisely), is long predated, as a form of mass ‘written’ communication, by the stained-glass windows of the medieval church. The challenge, as ever, for us as a society, is to make our new technology serve human purposes, not the other way around.