September 16, 2010

Greg Clingham, professor of English and director of the Bucknell University Press.

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LEWISBURG, Pa. — Greg Clingham, professor of English and director of the Bucknell University Press, talks about books, their e-future and their significance in scholarly and popular thought.

Q: What is the future of publishing? Especially with new media like e-books, is there a place for the printed book?

A: Printing is 500 years old, but the form of the book has been around for 2,000 years. It's had a profound and extensive influence on the history of humanity. It was almost exclusively the way the Bible was disseminated from very early days. And the printed word, in the form of books and pamphlets, was very influential in the French and American revolutions.

The book is here to stay, although the explosion of electronic publishing has meant publishers have had to become much more responsive about the future of the book.

There's no indication that there are many fewer printed books being produced. What we've had, however, is a proliferation of electronic books. Just after Christmas last year, for the first time ever, the sale of electronic books exceeded the sale of hardback books. But, surprisingly, the sale of hardback books has remained constant, suggesting that people are buying more books and not just changing preference.

The technology for electronic book readers is going to have to improve a great deal before we see a mass migration. The print book doesn't require electricity, it's portable, in some ways it's more flexible than electronic books because you can turn backwards and forwards with ease, you can insert markers, and you can access footnotes more easily than many electronic readers have yet made possible.

Q: What are some advantages to electronic publishing?

A: The electronic text is becoming more universal. It's much easier to send an electronic text to Third World countries in need for use in the classroom — if we could get the technology in place — than it is to send physical books.

Electronic publications are absolutely essential for scholarship. One can search databases, access hypertexts, and learn things that formerly only a lifetime of reading and study could provide. We can now access texts we could once only access if we went to one of the great research libraries.

On the other hand, there are many reasons why the actual book as material object sometimes needs to be read and to be examined. Sometimes the way a book has been scanned has been inadequate — bits have been cut off, certain pages have been deemed by the scanner to be unimportant — because of the assumption by electronic vendors that all books are the same, that once you've scanned one version or one edition of a book you've scanned them all. But that's not true at all.

Q: What is the significance of scholarly publications to the world of the academy?

A: Scholarly publications drive discovery and define knowledge in a field. In universities, it's a requirement for professional advancement. That's one of the big questions in the current development of scholarly publishing. Primarily in the humanities, the book is the measure of professional achievement, rather than the article or the blog or the online article. Usually, a person needs to have written a book and had it published by a reputable press, preferably a scholarly press, in order to achieve tenure and promotion.

The oddity is that universities — not necessarily Bucknell — continue to require this kind of professional achievement, even though they realize that fewer books are being published in comparison to 20 years ago. The institution of scholarly publishing in conjunction with universities is going to have to devise a way of assuring the community that electronic publications are authoritative.

Q: And what is the significance to the world at large?

A: Scholarly publications are important because they get into the bloodstream of public intellectuals and policymakers, jurists, medical practitioners, creative artists, etc. They have the potential to make a real impact on the way in which we conceive of the world and make choices and decisions in the world.

One could mention a very long list of scholars who have made a broad and very powerful impact upon what we might call the ordinary reader. Think of Henry Louis Gates or Steven Greenblatt or Sandra Gilbert and Susan Gubar or Edward Said or Martha Nussbaum, any number of people writing in the last 25 years who were professors and are experts in their field and yet have been read by a much broader cross-section of educated people in the community.

Increasingly, scholars who are capable of addressing larger audiences in accessible language are greatly valued. Think of Cornell West and Henry Louis Gates on TV, talking to massive audiences — not large lecture rooms but millions of people.

In a world where we increasingly appreciate the interconnectedness of cultures, the ease with which people on the other side of the world can access documents, and the need to be geared for many different possibilities and eventualities, I think particularly in this kind of global world, it's a mistake to see a hard and fast division between the scholarly and the popular.

Q: What are the Bucknell University Press' areas of specialization how did it come to have that focus?

A: The Bucknell Press, like most presses, has specializations that are the product of the people who run the press and of a particular moment. In our 42 years, we have a rich tradition of work in Hispanic and Latin American studies, begun in the 1970s by Mills Edgerton.

We have a substantial body of work, close to 100 titles now, in 18th-century studies developed over the last 15 years that came about because I'm in that field.

We have a very fine reputation in Irish studies that dates back to a series developed in the 1970s and early 1980s by James Carens, who also was responsible for an Irish collection in our archives. That ceased in the early 1980s but it's being revived by a new contemporary Irish writers series that John Rickard is editing.

The Bucknell Press has a high reputation nationally and internationally. We're trying to cultivate and encourage scholarship on campus to benefit from that high reputation. We've started a new series of books called "Stories of the Susquehanna" in conjunction with the Environmental Center, and a series of books on the "Griot Project" in conjunction with the Griot Institute (for Africana Studies).

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