Shooting for the Wrong Target

November 6, 2006

Gutenberg HimselfThe Manning article on Gutenberg-e posed many questions explicitly, but after finishing the article I had more questions about the questions than I had answers. The stated purpose of the Gutenberg-e is to “create competitions to identify and to reward excellent work at dissertation and first-book levels and thereby to enable endangered fields to thrive.”  Maybe I’m missing something.  Are monographs and first books endangered species?  If they are, is it their traditional, linear, hard-copy format that is holding them back?  Manning circled back to this question at the end of the article, asking whether the electronic format enhanced the content of the books.  His answer seemed to be an emphatic “well, maybe not quite.”  His criticisms are that the works submitted were too narrow in approach and in intended audiences.  Personally, I think this was inevitable and had little to do with the format.  The Gutenberg-e competition is aimed at junior historians.  If the subjects chosen by the contestants had one common attribute, it was that they were do-able.  I don’t know many budding historians who would chose for their dissertation an unknown field that carries substantial risk of failure.  Ours is a community different from others in that we continually look within as opposed to beyond.  And it’s unrealistic to expect that junior historians will be the ones to buck that trend.  If the Gutenberg-e aim is to encourage and produce really ground-breaking topics explored in new and exciting ways, maybe the target competitors should be established historians who don’t have as much to lose.

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