Libraries and Publishing
© 1995 by Jim Andrews
After I wrote a review of Richard Lanham's The Electronic Word, I tried to find other reviews. I tried using 'gopher' for an hour using my computer account with the university to help me locate some. I connected to several libraries in California. Either I was disallowed from logging on, not having a userid and password for these library data-bases, or the connection was of no help in tracking down reviews of Lanham's book. I also tried to find reviews of Lanham's book through other means using gopher. One service I found would fax me articles (at a price of about $10/article!) and this was useful in locating articles by but not reviews of Lanham.
I was finally able to locate a review by getting Lanham's Email address from gopher and sending a note to him that asked about reviews. An interesting solution: go straight to the author himself. 
Lanham's book, unlike Heim's Electric Language: a philosophical investigation of word processing, does speculate extensively on the consequences for the Humanities of the development of an electronic infra-structure. Certainly it seems to me that the more global changes to the Humanities and, more particularly, within the art of writing, will be more strongly related to changes in the infra structure of publishing and dissemination than to the less general phenomenon of word processing. Heim had some interesting things to say about word processing as a phenomenon, but the ways in which the infra structure, the market of ideas, will be changed by computer technology will be more significant than changes brought about by the phenomenon of word processing.
For instance, if it was possible for me to access electronically (for a price, no doubt) articles and books relating to the subject of Lanham's and Heim's books, I might be a bit more eloquent on the subject. More generally, such a structuring of texts would make learning easier--provided that the reader isn't a total rookie in the particular field or topic.
I'm interested in participating in making my texts available on-line in what is called the World Wide Web. Html (hypertext mark-up language) allows you to insert 'hot spots' within a text that, when the reader clicks on them, take the reader to another file. The file can be in Japan or wherever. You could make the bibliography full of hot spots that allow the reader to immediately reference the books in the bibliography. Assuming that the authors in the bibliography are willing to participate in this way and make their texts available.
Better yet, allow the reader to first jump to reviews or summaries of the books and then they can jump or not to the main text.
Were Lanham to participate by making his own such structure on the world wide web, you can see how we would begin to form a web. Eventually the web would become hopelessly circuitous and the reader would not feel comfortable navigating this spider's web of discourse. In such case, there would need to be roadmaps set up along the way. But who writes the roadmaps? I suppose that would be up to each person participating in the web i.e., the bibliographies they site largely determine their power in forming the routes through which readers navigate.
You can imagine a group of fifty writers, for instance, who site one another and no others. If you happen to enter the web through those writer's texts, you will not find references to the other 100 writers who are, in fact, in the same web. The other 100 writers may site the original 50. So if you enter the web through the 100 writers' texts, you may access the 50. And so forth.
Also, the software used to view the texts could allow readers in Japan to 'annotate' my text. They could click on a particular line and type in an annotation. I could choose to include the annotation in my text or not. If I were to accept the annotation, the next reader would see an asterisk or some such mark beside the line. Should the reader click on the asterisk, a list of annotations would appear (by author, presumably) and the reader could then click on the author's name and the annotation would appear on the screen beside the main text. Readers could add footnotes consisting both of commentary and links to other writings. 
A library's 'card catalogue' might be very much like it is now except that it would also list ways to access a writer's web site and might list the author's publications available on the web site. Perhaps the 'card catalogue' would be on-line and could actually connect to the writer's web site. Also, I note that libraries already subscribe to various services that update them on periodical indexes. This is often done via cdroms mailed to the libraries. The available such services, from what I gather, are disparate and incomplete.
Part of the goal, I suppose, is to supply some sort of centrality while allowing the sort of opportunities available via the world wide web. Centrality that remains connected to the periphery.
You can see that if we could essentially give people access to an Internet site via world wide web that housed our publications and contained bibliographies of other works of interest, then publishing would be very different indeed. The screens of information are attractive as computer screens get these days. Not ugly ASCII. If it were possible (and it is) to set up the system so that if someone accesses my web site, they are given a list of things that they can download (together with reviews, etc.) and also prices associated with each item (perhaps some are free, some are not) and a method whereby the reader, should she choose to 'purchase' one of my writings, would not give me her credit card number but would be billed anyway (so that she doesn't need to tell me her number) that would change publishing quite a bit.
And the buyer could have the option of buying either print editions or electronic versions of the work. If the files were formatted in Adobe Acrobat format and/or postscript, the buyer could print out a handsome volume.
Would this put publishers out of business? I doubt it. The situation reminds me of the conversation I had recently with a librarian who said that he was "terrified" about the threat (as he perceived it) of computer communications to libraries and the quality of information libraries can offer. My own feeling is that libraries will not diminish in their importance and will not disappear but, rather, will grow more important within the entire economy of the market of ideas. Or they may, should they choose to do so.
The University of Victoria library, try as it may, cannot possibly collect all the journals and books that it needs to in order to remain current and useful. It's terribly out-dated on most topics. The literary journals it has access to are usually dull and predictable. The library has to depend too much on its staff and the English and Creative Writing departments for its expertise on what to buy. Regardless of how well informed they are, they will not be aware of most of the publications available.
How much better for the library if it had access to literary information brokers who could supply them with structured indices of periodicals and other information brokerage companies and publishers. The index would allow the user to connect to the world wide web site of each of these indexed entities. And the user could obtain the periodicals, recordings, etc., directly through the ether in this fashion.
The library thus becomes not a primary site for texts (each library could specialise, perhaps and gather a world reputation for a particular subject) but a supplier of access to texts and other information.
Hence the library will continue to play a crucial (and expanding) role making information available. Librarians will realise that they are not in the business of supplying primary texts but of supplying access to those texts. Also, they will be in the business of supplying other sorts of information as well. Libraries will be in the business of supplying access to information and they should play a crucial role in constructing the systems that supply that access. Otherwise the business sector will dominate this enterprise.
The description I gave above of how each writer or purveyor of one sort of information or another can have their own Internet site on the world wide web (or on some other information system) is exciting, but without the sort of centrality offered by publishers, the seeker of poetry (or whatever) is bound to find herself in the bewildering position we currently are in when navigating the Internet trying to find just about any information. Publishers will become the sort of information brokers mentioned above. They will probably still publish books, but they will also provide libraries with the sort of indexes I mentioned. And, in turn, they will pay a fee to umbrella organisations that will advertise the publisher's wares to a larger audience.
The publishers will still publish books, but their business will increasingly become oriented toward electronic texts (and other forms of information). An author will choose a publisher and either have that work available at the publisher's site or have the web connection set up so that the fee the reader pays for the book goes partly to the author and partly to the publisher. There is no reason why the text cannot reside solely on the author's web site, really. The interested reader connects to the publisher's site, clicks on the author's book, and the book is downloaded to the reader via the author's web site.
I see this presents a rather nasty solution for those who are whining about copyright issues. What I've outlined provides for publishers and authors receiving a fee more often than what currently happens--insofar as the library does not hold a public copy of the text but only provides access to copies for sale.
However, there will undoubtedly arise sufficiently many pirate libraries (or pirate info dealers--whatever) that the level of subterfuge and underhanded dealings will remain more or less constant and congruent with our nature--resulting in the same sort of game we currently play.
© Jim Andrews