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New Dawn for Democratization of Knowledge

A library might not be the first place that comes to mind when you’re thinking about ground zero for a revolution, except when the upheaval lies with the fundamental flow of information.

Indeed, the societal impact of widespread access to universities’ digital scholarly collections—and eventually, the instantaneous connection to what was once held exclusively on libraries’ shelves and expansive databases—is comparable to the dramatic affect from the invention of the printing press in the mid-15th century, according to the University of Michigan Dean of Libraries, Paul N. Courant.

“Having as many ideas out there as possible is good for democratic societies, and having people argue about these ideas is how we mark progress,” said Courant. “The current technology allows us to take a major step toward the further democratization of knowledge.”

Within a century of the invention of the printing press, many of the writings in the classical canon were printed and circulated throughout Europe. This spread of ideas was the impetus for dramatic social and cultural changes that re-made the political landscape, and, in many ways, planted the seeds for democratic reforms over the past several centuries.

“People around the world—some in poor countries—will now get to read what, until a few years ago, were books difficult to readily find,” said Courant. “In the digital age, the way of spreading information and ideas is revolutionary.”

U-M is a recognized leader in utilizing on-demand technology. Currently, researchers can access the U-M Library’s out-of-copyright books from its digitized collection and from the Open Content Alliance archives (built by universities and other organizations around the country).

The university sells reprints of thousands of volumes from its collection through distributors such as Amazon. In October 2008, the U-M Library installed a state-of-the-art book-printing machine in the Shapiro Library on Central Campus. The machine prints (within 20 minutes) books downloaded from the university’s digital files of its out-of-copyright collection.

Last spring, U-M restructured its largest publishing affiliate, the University of Michigan Press, to focus primarily on the recruitment, production, and dissemination of digital monographs, also known as scholarly published works by a single author. The integration of monographs with the libraries’ published scholarly collection allows for a closer coordination with the Scholarly Publishing Office of the University of Michigan Library, which provides electronic publishing services.

University presses around the world are moving into digital technology, partly out of necessity, and partly out of a desire to find ways to publish more cost effectively. The recently restructured partnership between the U-M Press and the U-M Library accelerates the university’s transition into the digital age without compromising the mission to publish the highest-quality scholarly work, said Philip M. Pochoda, director of the University of Michigan Press.

“The monograph isn’t going away, we’re just moving toward an improved inventory control,” said Pochoda, who noted monograph print runs are typically in the hundreds, whereas major fiction and nonfiction runs are in the hundreds of thousands. “Quite simply, books will be available, but we won’t have to print unsold books.”

Since its inception, the U-M Press has published more than 3,000 books on a range of scholarly subjects. The catalog of published works includes books covering such subjects as American studies, economics, gender studies, law, Michigan and the Great Lakes, and political science. U-M Press’s backlist will be digitized and made freely available throughout the world.

In the future, scholarly published works will be available in digitized formats with an interactive design, said Pochoda. Features will include hot links, graphics, 3-D animation, and video. “The multimedia options for authors to communicate the subtleties of their work will be greatly enhanced,” he added.

The digital revolution is about technology and technique,” said Pochoda. “But let’s remember: Content is always the key. Our aim is to have as many ideas out in the public as possible.”

NOTE: In August, the Open Humanities Press joined U-M’s scholarly publishing office to create five new open-access monograph series. The books focus on critical and cultural theory. The purpose of the collaboration is to address the “digital credibility problem,” that is, the reliability of online information that appears in the guise of a legitimate scholarly publication.