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Digital Publishers Needed

We currently expect that a digital scholar can build a website him- or herself or receive enough federal funding to pay someone to do so. These solutions work for a small community. But as the digital humanities slowly become just the humanities, new researchers will be less likely to have technical knowledge or earn substantial grants or digital publication. For the field to expand beyond its early experiments, it needs publishers who earn their keep by producing digital publications.

Researchers will need to use technology for research, just as today’s scholars must know library organization systems. But as modern authors know almost nothing about printing, so digital researchers ought not have to understand digital publication.

The institutional knowledge for creating a book is housed with the publisher. The publisher pools the resources from many projects in order to finance specialization. Editors review the text for style and correctness, illustrators produce maps and drawings, typographers set the text in a meaningful and attractive way, and printers produce a volume that meet archival standards. There is an entire specialty of indexing and, for most works of substance, an expert indexer provides significant value to the reader. By selling eloquent, beautiful, well-organized works to libraries and the public, publishers isolate authors from the difficulties of book production and readers from the inexperience of authors.

Digital scholarship requires a similar institution. We still need expert editors, but they need to be attuned to writing for the web. We certainly still need artists and typographers. And now we need programmers and system administrators who ensure that the site will continue to function. More than anything else we need information architects who can index, organize, and tag research to make it quickly accessible.

Print publishers and the first generation of online scholarly archives aren’t adapting fast enough. Online access to fundamentally printed research through pdfs or text articles isn’t digital scholarship. Truly digital publishers will build websites with content management systems, interactive visualizations, mashups and APIs. They will redefine scholarship and digital design by combining the two in fundamentally new forms of scholarly publication. The age of print gave us dictionaries, critical editions, and periodicals. Today most digital scholarship has no particular form, blending in with other blogs and static websites.

Most of us in the humanities get an excessive joy from a well-printed dictionary. Everything about it–the overall layout, the detailed typography, even the smell–resonates with the activity of research and what we love about academia. It connects us with generations of researchers and contemporaries across many fields. When the next generation of scholars looks at the websites we build today, I hope they find the same distinctive joy, the same attention to detail, and the same feeling of community.

· May 27