New Forms of Reading and Publishing Take Center Stage at Ithaka Conference

September 21, 2011

Researchers and students haven't stopped reading in this digital era. But how they interact with texts continues to expand and evolve. The trick for publishers and librarians is how to respond to those changes. On Tuesday, speakers at the Ithaka Sustainable Scholarship conference shared insights into how to adapt spaces and texts to suit today's readers and users. The conference was sponsored by the Ithaka group, which promotes the use of technology in higher education.

Librarians advised attendees to pay close attention to how undergraduates, graduate students, and faculty members really use library resources, beginning with physical study space. Use that information "to realign the library to be a more obvious partner" in research and learning, said Susan Gibbons, now the university librarian at Yale University. She reported some findings from user-behavior studies done by the library at the University of Rochester, where she used to work.

Those studies found, among other things, that undergraduates wanted different library-seating arrangements from what the library designers had envisioned, and that the best way to make freshmen aware of library resources was not to lecture them but to engage their parents during orientation week.

Barbara Rockenbach, director of the humanities and history libraries at Columbia University, spoke at a separate panel about how to support the kind of multitasking and moving among texts that readers tend to do now. She made the point that this behavior is not really new; Thomas Jefferson had multiple books going simultaneously. But digital technology enables readers to scan, sort, and browse texts in a multitude of ways. In 2008, she said, Columbia's digital-humanities center did a survey of 940 users, including graduate students and faculty members. The survey found that being able to scan print texts was very important to users, who wanted more access to scanners in the library.

"That seems to be the most compelling trend in the data from the last five years," Ms. Rockenbach told the audience.

Another survey—of humanities Ph.D. candidates at Columbia and Cornell Universities—used in-depth interviews to find out what those students wanted. "There was an absolute need and requirement for distraction-free study space," Ms. Rockenbach said. But students also wanted spaces that would give them a sense of community to relieve the isolation they felt as they got further into their dissertations.

Students and scholars also want to be able to use e-books the way they use print texts, she said. "They want to underline, they want to highlight." Many find e-book platforms not very easy to work with yet.

Ms. Rockenbach also advised librarians to think about concepts such as how to "not read"—how to know what's in a book without actually having to read every word. In the humanities, for instance, traditional close reading gives in-depth knowledge of a few books; now digital humanists and others have developed "distant reading" techniques that depend on mining large groups of texts to find connections and patterns without reading individual works.

She laid out some steps that libraries could take to support those new approaches: provide the wherewithal for users to repurpose and reformat texts; provide tools and support for textual analysis; educate users about new methods; collect and license texts in many formats; archive and preserve digital-humanities projects; and encourage publishers to produce flexibly formatted texts.

A Need to Be Flexible

Other speakers made it clear that publishers today need to be flexible in many ways and that being successful is not just a matter of moving traditional print-driven activities online. "You're seeing these venerable brands that used to dominate publishing fighting for their lives on the Web," said Richard Ziade, the founding partner of the design-and-technology firm Arc90 and the creator of Readability, an online reading tool.

The reading landscape now is dominated by e-readers, reading apps, and what he called "social magazines," such as Flipboard, a popular app that takes online content from users' favorite sources and combines it into a personalized digital magazine. Only 3 percent of Readability's user traffic comes from The New York Times, and that's "the top of the heap," Mr. Ziade said. That low proportion "speaks to the highly fragmented nature of using the Web."

Instead of focusing on how to get their old reader numbers back, he said, publishers should think about new ways to create and serve up content. People don't like paywalls, he said, but they "will pay for a great reading experience."

The limits of publishing's traditional print-centric work flow became clear in a presentation by Katie Edmonds, an independent media producer. Ms. Edmonds described in detail the trial and error involved in turning Stephen Kinzer's nonfiction book All the Shah's Men, about the 1953 coup staged by British and American operatives in Iran, into an iPad-friendly, interactive graphic novel called Operation Ajax. Ms. Edmonds and the startup she worked with, Cognito Comics, had to invent the process as they went along. "It's kind of fun," she said. "But it's not easy."

For libraries and perhaps even publishers overwhelmed by the work required to digitize, tag, and archive content, and to make it accessible to users, crowd-sourcing might be at least a partial solution. The final panel of the conference focused on "Crowd Power: When the Audience Becomes the Author." Ben Vershbow, manager of the New York Public Library Labs, described its experiences with recruiting general users to help tag historical maps and decipher old menus from restaurants in New York City. Crowd-sourcing, he said, can help a library explore such "edge collections," which tend to take a back seat to important core collections but contain a wealth of valuable material.

Helping the Moles

Chris Lintott, a researcher at the University of Oxford, leads Galaxy Zoo, which recruits members of the public to help astronomers identify millions of photographs of galaxies. He also chairs the Citizen Science Alliance, a transatlantic group that works to further such projects. "By getting lots of eyes on these large data sets, you can open up the possibility of serendipitous discoveries," he said. For instance, Galaxy Zoo volunteers discovered a new kind of galaxy they called pea galaxies, because they're small, round, and green.

In Mr. Lintott's experience, such projects work best when they're both flexible and directed enough to be reliable. Galaxy Zoo incorporates discussion tools that astronomers can monitor to see what volunteers are picking up on, and vets its volunteers' findings by getting multiple identifications of the same objects and using a set of expert identifications as a reference point.

Alastair Dunning is the digitization program manager at JISC, the Joint Information Systems Committee, which supports the use of technology in British higher education. If 10,000 members of the public show up outside the door of your library and say they want to help you update your catalog, Mr. Dunning said, "you're not going to dismiss them out of hand."

He gave an overview of several research projects that have put crowd-sourcing to good use. They include Trove, a collection of digitized Australian newspapers, which recruited the public to help decipher difficult-to-read newspaper pages, and Oxford's First World War Poetry Digital Archive, which asked people to contribute memorabilia from the war.

Such projects are part of a larger public-engagement mission, Mr. Dunning said, and draw on a widespread desire to contribute to knowledge. He pointed out that it helps if there's an element of fun to the work—public recognition of those who contribute the most corrected text, for instance, or a game element that draws users in. He described a Finnish transcription project in which users who transcribed words correctly got to move animated moles from one place to another. "You think, 'I've not only got to help world knowledge, I've got to help the moles," Mr. Dunning said. "It's addictive."