Web Magazine for Information Professionals

On Demand Publishing in the Humanities

Phil Sykes reports on the latest work in On Demand Publishing in the Humanities, an eLib project.

On Demand Publishing in the Humanities [1], apart from being the most acronymically challenged of eLib’s progeny, was one of the earliest projects to start, and will shortly conclude. The project deliverable was the creation of a set of electronic modules for Humanities students, combining lecturers’ materials with copyright materials provided by publishers.

One of the interesting things about doing research is the way that one is occasionally ambushed by one’s result. Here are a few of the surprises we have encountered along the way.

Our first surprise was a pleasant one. Our principal aim was to create a “cheap and cheerful” model for networking electronic texts. We surprised ourselves by the extent to which we were able to do this without recourse to fancy programming and expensive, project-specific, hardware and software. For a university library which has access to a WWW server and can afford to make a PC available the hardware and software costs of copying what we have done would be less than £2,000. As for programming, the only original work needed for implementation of our model was a neat bit of CGI script which writes coded details of the user into any text which he or she downloads.

Our next surprise was the staggering extent of techno- illiteracy among humanities students! Though our project proposal anticipated this as a possibly interesting feature of our work, we did not know how interesting. Of the twenty one students who turned up for induction to the first of our three electronic modules, nineteen had never used a networked computer before - this despite the fact that they were third years, with reasonable access to computer facilities, who had been required to hand in typed essays in the past! Interestingly, however, the level of computer literacy rose dramatically even during the short life of the project. When we re-ran the module referred to above in the succeeding academic year we found that the proportions of experienced users to novices was reversed: nineteen had previous experience with using networked computers; two didn’t.

The third surprise was the extent of the difficulties caused us by copyright. Obviously we anticipated problems here, but still the actual severity of our problems came as a shock. We were, to an extent, cushioned from copyright problems with our first module, because most of the relevant readings were provided by our helpful project partners, Blackwell Publishing and Routledge. With our second and third modules, however, we relied upon a far wider range of publishers. Our inability to get copyright permissions for some key extracts in these areas seriously undermined the usefulness of the electronic modules we provided, and made it difficult for academic staff to plan their contribution to the modules. We were also disappointed to find that publishers were virtually never able to supply us with electronic originals of texts: this meant that we had to create original electronic copies from print, imposing a heavy extra cost.

Though copyright remains the biggest difficulty for all On Demand and E-reserve projects it would be unwise to be despondent. Electronic delivery is pre-eminently an area where the goal posts move with dizzying speed, and there is now an active dialogue between libraries and publishers - largely thanks to eLib.


[1] On-Demand Publishing in the Humanities

Author Details

Phil Sykes
The Aldham Robarts Learning Resource Centre
Liverpool John Moores University
Mount Pleassant
Liverpool L3 5UZ
tel: 0151 2313147
fax: 0151 707 1307