I was one of the panellists at an event held at the British Library last night to discuss academic acts of reading and how these may be being transformed in the digital age. The event was organised by the team behind the Academic Book of the Future, a two-year project funded by the AHRC (http://academicbookfuture.org) and the other panellists were Professor Andrew Prescott, Theme Leader for the AHRC’s Digital Transformations call, and Professor Miri Rubin, a medievalist from Queen Mary University London. Our chair was Sara Perry, an archaeologist and Director of Studies of Digital Heritage at York. The event was the latest in a series of Digital Conversations held at the British Library, the next one will be on gaming and education.
My contribution focused initially on how digital technologies have facilitated the emergence or return of forms of social reading, enabling readers to share their reading with others via social media, discussion fora, blogs etc. I also spoke about how this often in turn leads to readers claiming ownership of what they read, customising or creating their own content, resulting in rich participatory cultures and activities. I then discussed how my own practice as a reader/academic had been influenced by the digital, particularly the sharing of content via retweeting or emailing links, and the curation of reading via apps such as Evernote. The term ‘power browsing’ has been coined to refer to this kind of activity, capturing I think both the sense that this isn’t an entirely unskilled activity, and that the impulse to display the breadth of one’s reading has perhaps always been part of the academic’s make-up. I then used the example of a recent academic book on reading that I had bought as a hardback (Naomi Baron’s Words Onscreen) to talk about why we choose to read in print vs on screen (assuming we have that choice), referring to research on rereading and ‘deep’ reading, and studies of comprehension based on the reading of the ‘same’ text on screen and in print.
Andrew Prescott talked about his journey as a reader and an academic, and made the point that in his mind academic and ‘general’ reading were not distinct activities. His talk was based on a blog piece he had written for the DRN blog in which he discussed his introduction to various digital tools and how this had changed him as a reader. He argues that far from being revolutionary or disruptive the shift to the digital is a more gentle and gradual process, and that for some acts of reading, print will always win out. To illustrate this, he talked about his love for poetry and how he prefers to do this in print because ‘like whisky [poetry] needs to be sipped’. He spoke of his frustration at not being able to share electronic books easily and about how most ebooks are disappointingly boring and ‘untransformative’.
Miri Rubin provided some fascinating insights into how her own reading practice as an academic was shaped by debates about deconstructing the ‘text’ and reading intertextually in the eighties as many disciplines in the humanities were influenced by what she called the ‘linguistic turn’. Both Miri and Andrew spoke enthusiastically about how the digital could enable students of history to explore historical materials in ways not previously possible, but cautioned against how search tools might risk decontextualising some of that material, and marginalise the critical reading skills that have for so long been at the core of humanities disciplines.
Questions from the chair and the floor provided some excellent further discussion points including ‘Which academic book is the one that you have reread the most’, ‘How relevant is the book format in the transmedia age?’ and ‘If it were possible to buy the entire contents of the British Library on a data stick, would you be interested?’ The discussion also touched on academic writing and publishing, and how the monograph is faring in the current climate. Sara Perry used the example of a PhD student currently working on a thesis which uses the video game format to talk about gaming and archaeology/cultural heritage (which reminded me of BU’s own groundbreaking Rufus Stone project), and whether or not such outputs could be REFable.
The Academic Book of the Future is hosting an Academic Book Week 9-16 November, with a range of planned activities, and the website offers further opportunities to get involved and contribute to the project.