Part of any publisher’s production workflow is registering published items with identifiers of various kinds. For traditional books these identifiers includes things like ISBNs and other cataloging descriptors like OCLC numbers and Library of Congress call numbers. With the advent of digitized texts came the addition of Digital Object Identifiers, or DOIs. Assigning all these identifiers involves metadata, which inevitably means defining the publication’s format type. Definition is easy when a format has been widely understood, accepted, produced, and circulated for centuries. The process of cataloging and registering books is pretty streamlined for most publishers. Even assigning identifying information to ebooks, a much newer format, has become pretty routine. But digital projects like the ones we’re publishing, which are inherently multimodal and web-based, offer an entirely new and somewhat perplexing set of challenges.
A recent discussion I had with a DOI registering agency was a reminder that the organizations and entities that publishers work with on a regular basis don’t yet understand that what we at SUP are publishing, and what other publishers will inevitably be adding to their programs, is very different from what’s already out there. So it’s worth taking a moment to establish what distinguishes our digital publications from other kinds of digital publications, like ebooks, that seemingly have none of these challenges of definition surrounding them.
Digital projects like the ones we’re publishing, which are inherently multimodal and web-based, offer an entirely new and somewhat perplexing set of challenges.
The projects we’re publishing under the terms of our Mellon grant are very different from the typical electronic book. When you read an ebook, you scroll or swipe pages. You click links to an index or maybe even external content. Perhaps you annotate passages or jump directly to a chapter from the clickable table of contents. Sure, it’s interactive, and sure, it’s digital; but in general, the content and arguments are structured the same way they’d be structured in a traditional book. In most cases, the author of such a project works with essentially the same tools as the author of a traditional book when they’re composing their text. And in many cases, what the reader is interacting with on the screen is in effect a digitized text though it may also include images, sound, and other media. In essence, I would argue it’s a printable text delivered in a digital environment that accommodates the practice of traditional reading slightly augmented by technological conveniences. But not much of the content would be lost if a reader chose to print out the text. And that’s fine.
More than simply remediated books, the projects we are publishing are born-digital, multimodal, long-form works of scholarship.
Which brings us back to the production process. While we’re not spending quite as much time as we would with a traditional monograph on building the book as an object, we’re putting a lot more into negotiating definitions and having conversations with all those organizations and agencies that put the identifiers and descriptors on these new publication formats. Is it enough to use the schemas and rubrics for the typical book? We think not, and we hope authors, librarians, catalogers, and other presses who are publishing or hope to publish these new formats will join us in pushing the descriptive boundaries.
Scholarly discourse evolves. Formats evolve. So should the language that classifies their relationship. Scholarly digital projects are as valuable as any book published by an academic press and deserve a place in the scholarly economy. Identifying them correctly is a necessary part of that evolution.
Jasmine Mulliken is Production and Preservation Manager, Digital Projects, at Stanford University Press. She coordinates the production and preservation workflow of born-digital projects, including recommending platforms and coding standards to authors, consulting with authors on projects’ technical attributes, and evaluating best practices for archiving and preservation.