The Future of the Online Monograph

Bob Shoemaker | 12 October 2020

Early Modern History | British History | Digital History | Public History

The idea of a ‘hyperlink’ is now 75 years old.  Most genealogies trace its origins to Vannevar Bush, and his 1945 article ‘As We May Think’. Over the next five decades, via Project Xanadu, Autodesk, HyperTIES, and Hypercard, the idea of linking pages and objects across documents grew to become the foundational concept that would power the World Wide Web. And through the Web, in just the last 30 years hyperlinks have been normalised in everyday life. They are ubiquitous. Even before the pandemic, no academic would consider teaching without the online resources accessed via the web, and organised via hyperlinks.

And yet, when it comes to academic publishing, and historical monographs in particular, we persist in simply ‘turning a page’. We publish books in hard copy, replete with footnotes and endnotes requiring a physical library to check. Historians and humanists have repeatedly failed to rise to the challenge of both the hyperlink and the opportunities it holds to enhance distant learning.

Perhaps the existential threat of a global pandemic can change this. In the light of our locked-in lives, forms of pedagogy and publication built around a library have become as old fashioned as bustles and galoshes.

In 2015, we published a monograph with Cambridge University Press that sought to build on these affordances and traditions. Our attempts to break the mould of electronic publishing did not go well. London Lives: Poverty, Crime and the Making of the Modern City, 1690-1800, was designed to give direct electronic access to both a wide-ranging historical argument, and all the sources upon which it was based. It included hyperlinks to digitised versions of most of the primary sources cited in our footnotes and quoted in the text, and numerous downloadable databases, printed illustrations, and online secondary sources. It was an attempt to re-invent the monograph – to take a scholarly apparatus designed for moveable type and re-imagine it for the World Wide Web.

But, while the hard-copy book was well received, taking its place on the library shelf, the electronic edition was a failure. Most of the formats it was published in (notably PDFs) obscured the functionality we had worked hard to embed in the text; and perhaps more importantly, it came out at a moment when there was little appetite for innovation. The 2010s saw the failure of several journals of ‘Digital History’ and ‘Digital Humanities’ and the decline in academic ‘blogging’. London Lives was made available in a number of formats unfamiliar to most readers and electronic editions accounted for only 12 per cent of sales.

With the permission of CUP, this year we decided to publish a new, open access, online edition, which takes advantage of all the affordances of online publication; it can be accessed via the London Lives homepage.  We did not set out on this course in response to the Covid pandemic, but the changing landscape of education it prompted makes us hope that the moment has come for this particular experiment.

Using modest funds made available by the University of Sussex, we engaged Dr Sharon Howard to rework the text into a HTML format via Markdown – making it easy to read in most browsers, on desktops, laptops and phones. The graphs and tables were cleaned up, and new colour images replaced the black and white versions demanded for the hard copy. Most importantly, new navigation strategies were built in, including an electronic table of contents, numbered paragraphs, linked endnotes, and a global search facility. All the compromises of the first edition were addressed.

And what we found was that in the five years since they were last checked, and while a very small number websites had disappeared, much more content had emerged. Books that we previously could not locate online were now readily accessible via a snippet view in Google Books, and DOIs were present for the vast majority of articles. In 2015, it felt like we were cutting against the grain. Five years later the infrastructure of a properly hyperlinked, open access e-book was largely in place.

A page of London Lives with linked resources (Click on the image to view it in greater detail)

In many respects this edition of London Lives remains remarkably conservative. There is no video, no graphic novel. The argument progresses in a linear and chronological manner, decade by decade, with no narrative tricks along the way. We purposefully designed it so as not to scare the horses, and to conform to the construction of ‘authority’ on the page demanded by traditional academic history writing. Even with its reliance on hyperlinks, it is a book that could have been imagined in 1945, and implemented at any point after 1987 when Hypercard was published; and one built on the referencing conventions of the 19th century.

But it is also a book that can be read, and taught, online – with all the references ready to hand. That a global pandemic has turned our minds to the problems of teaching and learning at a distance in a new, online world re-confirms our commitment to exploiting the affordances of the hyperlink – and to the re-invention of the monograph for the virtual classroom.

Was it worth it? We believe that the new edition, launched on 8 October, will have a larger readership, which will be able to engage more deeply with the text and the sources on which it is based. And this new edition is a beautiful thing. It is by far the most user-friendly version of the book so far produced, with easy navigability, thorough linkages to external sources, and keyword searching supplementing the index.

While cost remains an issue, it is often used to justify resistance to innovation. Publishers and academics need to question their business models. After all, the software used to create this edition is free and open source, and how many authors actually make a significant profit from publishing monographs? We believe that the format of this book represents an attractive possible future – the academic monograph for a world in lockdown.

Tim Hitchcock is Professor of Digital History at the University of Sussex

Robert Shoemaker is Professor of Eighteenth Century British History at the University of Sheffield