Kathleen Fitzpatrick is an American scholar of digital humanities and the director of scholarly communication of the Modern Language Association. She specializes on scholarly publishing in the age of the Internet and researches the effect of network communication on texts. Her last book “Planned Obsolescence: Publishing, Technology, and the Future of the Academy” was published 2011 with NYU Press.
Hybrid Publishing Lab: What recent changes do you see in literature and scholarship resulting from the development of networked communication technologies? How do these changes affect the philosophy of books?
Kathleen Fitzpatrick: I’m interested both in what is changing and in what isn’t. Readers and researchers definitely have new expectations about their ability to access the materials they want at a moment’s notice; we also expect to be able to carry significant portions of our libraries with us wherever we go. Reading on digital devices has become part of a more generalized information flow, and part of a series of social exchanges, rather than a distinct, solitary activity.
What hasn’t yet changed, or at least not to the same extent, however, is the shape of texts themselves. Early hypertext theorists seemed to point toward a future in which the many texts with which readers and researchers engage would be richly interconnected and weblike, permitting that engagement to fully instantiate the ideas proposed in some poststructuralist theory. The chunked, rhizomatic text would produce a reader who was a full partner with the author in the text’s production. Texts, it seemed, would become multimodal, fluid, and nonlinear.
But by and large they haven’t. The shape of the book remains very much what it has for centuries been: linear, textual, and relatively solid. This comparative stability in the face of massive technological (and not insignificant social) change — including the movement of the book onto networked screens — leads me to believe that the bookness of the book inheres in something other than its delivery system: it’s not about the print, or the binding, but something else. I hope that my talk at the conference might be a start toward teasing some out some of the possibilities.
HPL: How are academic institutions affected by the technological changes today in terms of scholarly publishing and what difficulties arise from it?
Fitzpatrick: Academic institutions face ever-increasing demands for immediately available resources, but accessing those resources is placing severe strains on library budgets. Moreover, many digital resources, once purchased, are not “owned” but rather “licensed” by the institutions, meaning that the collections they are building may not be permanent in the ways that libraries and their patrons have long expected. Institutions are thus challenged not only to find ways to acquire the materials their constituents need, but also to ensure that those materials will remain available in the future.
HPL: Are there any specific topics related to our conference topic of a “post-digital scholarship” you recently came across in your work in a way that surprised you?
Fitzpatrick: I’ve been spending a fair bit of time lately thinking about the ways that scholarly conventions — our research, reading, and writing practices — might fruitfully evolve in the encounter with digital technologies. Nonetheless, I found myself caught a bit off-guard by a recent call in a blog post published by the _New York Review of Books_ for abandoning citation as we have known it [http://www.nybooks.com/blogs/nyrblog/2014/sep/13/references-please/?insrc=hpbl]. The author argues that in the age of Google, tracking down the source of a quotation has become a simple process that requires much less in the way of documentation on the part of the author. On the one hand, I agree — citation practices might be streamlined in some useful ways, as they have accumulated a fair bit of arcana. But on the other hand, I found myself quite surprised to hear a scholar arguing that we should hand over the genealogy of criticism — the ability to trace the development of ideas across conversations and over time — to a for-profit entity whose algorithms are a notorious black box and whose business practices include elevating paying sources in search results. I’m absolutely in favor of using the digital tools we have available in the best ways; I’d just hope that we might be a bit more cautious about relying on commercial entities for crucial aspects of scholarly communication.
HPL: Which book will you always have as an analogue copy in your bookshelf?
Fitzpatrick: I recently moved from southern California, where I had a good-sized condo and a large office lined with bookshelves, to New York, where I have much, much less space. I had to downsize my library by about 2/3 in order to make it fit. It was pretty hard making those choices, and it’s even harder for me to imagine getting rid of even more. I read much more on my iPad these days, mostly out of convenience, but there are books on my shelves now that I cannot imagine ever parting with — my annotated copies of Gravity’s Rainbow, Underworld, and Infinite Jest among them. They’re as much records of my own reading and exploration as they are copies of the narratives themselves.