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The River of Change

As part of this year's University Press Week, we are proud to join 36 other university presses in a blog tour that will touch on some of the most pressing issues in our industry. Blogging along with us today are Harvard University PressStanford University Press, the University of Texas Press, Duke University Press,  Temple University Press, and the University of Minnesota Press. A schedule for the entire week is here. Today's theme is the future of scholarly publishing, so we turned to Holly Shulman, who served as editor of The Dolley Madison Digital Edition, the first publication under our electronic imprint, and coeditor of Rotunda's latest title, People of the Founding Era.

While visiting Houston last weekend, I heard for the first time about the East Texas town of Jefferson. By the time Texas became a state, in 1845, Jefferson was its sixth largest city.  It was an important transportation hub in the days when streamships and inland waterways were more important than railroads. Boats going up the Mississippi River crossed into Texas on the Red River, and Jefferson thrived. Today it is just a small town, a relic of the past that lives off of its tourist industry. Legend has it that the railroad companies wanted to route their tracks through Jefferson, and the city leaders said no: they had the river traffic; they did not need this new form of transportation. And so the city of Jefferson shriveled.

This story may not be historically accurate, but it is compelling. It reflects a consistent dynamic in America wherein old ways are challenged and, finally, defeated by new ways—usually driven by a new technology.

The fate of Jefferson may be predictive of changes occurring in the world of books and publishing. Almost overnight, what were once considered far-off possibilities in the industry are now fully arrived necessities. Every press must create e-books, an endeavor that has little to do with its traditional expertise. Publishers must adapt to and work with Amazon as they watch bookstores collapse under the weight of online competition. Each press must consider making the transition to an XML workflow.

As a historian working with primary-source materials, I ask myself how this revolution will affect the world of documentary editions—the magisterial collections of the papers of our founding fathers, of Webster, Clay, and Calhoun, of Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Eleanor Roosevelt, still published in print on smooth creamy paper, heavy with text. Will such projects survive the next ten years? Or does the community of editors have to adjust in order to avoid going the way of Jefferson. I am inclined to think that yes, even here the new will push out the old.

And what about the university press—will it be able to accommodate the new, especially in the arena of documentary editions? Perhaps only with difficulty. But I don’t think in this case that shortsightedness is to blame. It is not that the publishing world’s city fathers believe that what they have—the water traffic—will support their prosperity well into the future. I suspect it is because university presses, which have always published print editions, find the new way of doing things hard and expensive. Creating a really good digital edition—one that either repurposes an older print version, or produces a new born-digital one—is daunting. A press has to acquire a server. It must hire a staff of knowledgeable experts. These new professionals must be conversant in XML and in TEI, in computer languages and databases. These are not the skills of past generations of publishing staffs.

I feel thankful to have found the only electronic imprint among American university presses: Rotunda, the digital wing of the University of Virginia Press. My project, The Dolley Madison Digital Edition (DMDE), will turn ten soon, and as the event draws closer I have been thinking about what Rotunda has meant to me and to the DMDE. Rotunda took me under their wing and together we designed a whole new kind of edition that neither looked nor felt like a book.

As a historian and editor, I feel as if I have not only explored Dolley Madison’s world, but been able to share it with readers in a way I never could have done in print. Rotunda’s latest publication, People of the Founding Era: A Prosopographical Approach, on which I was fortunate enough to collaborate, is the imprint’s most sophisticated project yet. This database, containing many thousands of biographical profiles, reveals the relationships and trends of a distant era in a way that no print publication could have.

We who are published by Rotunda ought to be grateful. We have a publisher who can take on the technical challenges that presses are increasingly faced with and one that has generated a business plan that makes online publishing of primary-source material financially sustainable. Recognizing one must advance is one thing; to avoid the fate of Jefferson, Texas, one must also be prepared to advance. And while we must take that leap to ensure our survival, we will find it enriches our work in ways we had never imagined.

Holly Shulman, Research Professor at the University of Virginia, is the editor of The Dolley Madison Digital Edition and coeditor of the forthcoming People of the Founding Era, both published by Rotunda.