From books to Boocs: what is the future?

Scholars and publishers assess some bold responses to the pressures on traditional formats

February 9, 2017
E learning
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How should academic books and libraries reinvent themselves if they are to address the ever-changing needs of students and communities?

Possible answers have been offered during three workshops at the British Library. 

Sue Hodges, director of libraries and archives at Bangor University – and chair of the Welsh Higher Education Libraries Forum (WHELF) – considered how universities and other member institutions could “open up [their] collections and engage more”. 

Bangor, she said, possessed many treasures but also special collections focusing on Arthurian legends, 16th-century cosmology, molluscs and the work of the artist Frank Brangwyn, whose books and prints are said to have arrived in 1957 in the first London black taxi ever seen in Bangor. The challenge was to find innovative ways of “tell[ing] the story behind the collection” such as through performances or a medieval day at Caernarfon Castle.

Members of the co_LAB team at the University of Lincoln, set up to “develop new approaches to collaborative teaching and learning through the use of networked digital tools”, meanwhile explored how print as well as electronic books would need to draw on today’s “global online network of readers and texts” in an environment based on “the three Ds” of dissemination, discoverability and discussion.

A more detailed programme was described by Lara Speicher, publishing manager at UCL Press at University College London.

“Current research doesn’t reach the full potential audience,” she explained, “especially monographs in the arts, humanities and social sciences.” In 2015, therefore, her institution had decided to support “a new form of scholarly publishing” and set up “the first fully open-access university press”. It had already launched standard academic journals such as Radical America as well as journals run and sometimes largely written by students.

Although UCL Press charges for print copies of its books, all the texts are also freely accessible online – and Ms Speicher reported that there had already been 185,000 downloads in 200 countries for its first 26 titles.

Certain disciplines were particularly keen to embrace this model. Anthropologists, for example, were often concerned that their “subjects” should be able to access what had been written about them: the How We Post series, in which nine anthropologists went out to look at social media usage everywhere from an English village to industrial China and northern Chile, had attracted much interest in the relevant places.

In a further effort to develop the traditional academic book, UCL Press is now investigating what it calls Boocs – books as open online content – which are designed to evolve over time, and to incorporate articles of different kinds, tweets, blogs, audio and video. The first should be published shortly as part of the Academic Book of the Future research project.

The three workshops formed part of Academic Book Week, which put on events all over the UK and also organised a vote to determine the most influential academic book.

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