Long Live the Monograph – archaeology and e-books

From the 1st May 2013 the Centre for Applied Archaeology at the University of Salford will be offering publications such as this, on Buckton Castle, in e-book form.

From the 1st May 2013 the Centre for Applied Archaeology at the University of Salford will be offering publications such as this, on Buckton Castle, in e-book form.

The rise of electronic publication is one of the more striking cultural shifts of the last decade. Supported by better quality screens and new personal data-devices such as smart phones, tablets, and e-book readers it is now normal to see commuters on trams, trains, and buses with their noses in the latest fiction e-book. Most universities have electronic data stores of academic research, whilst e-journals pioneered the introduction of this technology within academia.

Archaeology as a discipline has been slow to take up this technology, beyond the e-journal market and the pressures of the publishing houses. Thus, nearly a decade ago one of the period archaeology societies I have been involved with at a committee level for many years was approached by the publisher of their journal with a proposal to provide this electronically. That journal now has more individual articles downloaded each year than the society’s membership – for a fee of course. Back-issues of the society’s own newsletter were made available electronically, for free, a few years later. The Archaeological Data Service (ADS) has for many years been making freely accessible archaeological information and grey-literature reports of developer-funded fieldwork. The pressure to monetise the scholarly value of this primary data, though, is increasing.

What I want to raise in this blog is the lack of availability, electronically, of the other great medium of archaeological information: the monograph. In many disciplines the journal article is the building-block of dissemination, argument, and progress, but in archaeology the specialist monograph, on a single site, as a series of conference papers, or as a collection of thought-provoking essays, is equally important. I was reminded of this at the April 2013 IfA Annual Conference in Birmingham where several of the key fieldwork texts from the 1970s and 1980s were discussed in one particular session in relation to Processual and Post-Processual archaeology approaches: Prior and Clark’s work on key East Midlands sites for instance. These were published in the British Archaeological Reports (BAR) series. My old university library stopped automatically taking this eclectic and excellent series in the late 1990s as the volume of published material grew and the costs rose. However, the current publishers of the series, Archaeopress, have for several years been providing ebook versions of new titles and have just started providing electronic copies of their back catalogue from the 1970s onwards.

Traditionally there has been a small, but strong, market for manuscripts deemed too specialist by the traditional publication houses to be cost effective, hence the establishment of BAR in 1974. The growth of desk-top publication computer programmes in the 1980s and 1990s saw the founding of monograph series amongst many local societies and archaeology units. The Cumberland and Westmorland Antiquarian Society has a large number of such volumes, whilst Oxford Archaeology, MOLA, Wessex, and the York Archaeological Trust all have long-running monograph series. Few of these important volumes are, at the moment, available electronically. The spread of e-book readers and programmes in the last few years, has, however, made this a serious topic for debate within the archaeology profession and local societies.

Many local societies now produce an e-newsletter – it cuts down on the cost of printing and postage and allows more material to be included. The Buildings Archaeology Special Interest Group of the IfA (of which I happen to be Chair at the moment) now only produces its newsletter electronically. However, we must be careful not to dis-enfranchise those individuals who do not have the desire or ability to access this form of publication. In my role as Chair of CBA North West I have held several discussions over the last year as to whether to make our newsletter only available electronically – to which the answer has been no, not yet. We are, though, about to produce our journal in both paper and e-book format. As for the electronic publication of archaeological monographs, the Centre for Applied Archaeology at Salford University, like many such archaeology bodies, has moved to both paper printing and e-books. From the 1st May both our monograph runs (the University of Salford Archaeology Monographs and the Applied Archaeology Series) will be available as e-books, downloadable from the university’s web-shop for the same price as the paper versions. In producing these it has become apparent that there are formats which are easier to read electronically than on paper – larger font types and a single column appear best on the black-and-white screens of the first generation of e-readers for instance: as with the introduction of printing in the 15th century it will no doubt take a while for the opportunities of the new publication medium to emerge.

The rise of open-source data may mark the point at which archaeology makes the leap from the publication of monographs electronically to the publication of full data sets, so that researchers can interrogate the original data, or a copy of it, themselves, coming up with new conclusions and interpretations. This is already possible on a limited basis through the material held by the ADS. This, though, leads us into the world of meta-data and data-mining rather than publication. There will still be a need to write a synthesis of this data and therefore there will continue to be a role for the monograph-type of publication, whether in paper or increasingly as an e-book.

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2 thoughts on “Long Live the Monograph – archaeology and e-books

  1. Reblogged this on Richard the Castellan and commented:
    In late closing months of 2012 the Centre for Applied Archaeology at the University of Salford published a monograph on the excavations at Buckton Castle. I had been involved with several seasons of the digging there and was fascinated by the site. I wrote about it in a first-year essay, am still writing about it now in my post-graduate research, and in 2012 I was one of three authors of the final volume of the Archaeology of Tameside series. I was delighted to learn that not only was there an e-book, which is important in making the information accessible to a wide audience, but that the first chapter would be free to access. The post summarises the situation nearly two years ago. Progress is slow, and while English Heritage announced at the end of 2014 that they were making PDFs of 84 of their out-of-print monographs there is still a huge amount of information out there which can be difficult or expensive to access if your local library doesn’t have what you need. Digital copies of monographs and journals are integral to helping the spread of information.

  2. The Higher Education Funding Council for England have published a report on making monographs open access. At 77 pages long it’s a lot to digest, but does mention that spending by SCONUL libraries on e-books increased from £8.2 to £16.9 in the space of the three years up to 2012/13.

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