Imaginary Text

Revisiting Mellon's Public Knowledge

JMaxOctober 26, 2023 DH, scholcomm

Amazingly, the Mellon Foundation’s Public Knowledge program invited me to their ‘all-projects’ meeting in New York this fall. Though surprising to me, it wasn’t entirely random; I had written a couple of reports for Mellon—on scholarly communications infrastructure projects[1]—but I haven’t had much to do with them since before the pandemic. I was pretty pleased to be invited, and it turned out that I knew most of the invitees to the meeting and still had a pretty good sense of the conversations and issues.

New York City, 59th & 6th Ave, in the rain.
Rainy day in New York in October

The all-projects meetings bring together the program’s grantees to report briefly on their progress and achievements, but more importantly, to talk to one another and seek common ground, opportunities for collaboration, and to learn from others’ experience. As I hadn’t been involved in any Mellon activity in a while, I had nothing to report on, but I did volunteer to be the moderator for a panel of authors of digital-first publications—to help justify being there (at least to myself :-)

The projects in question (about fifteen represented here) range from infrastructure/software development that enables the ‘digital monograph’ in some form (U Michigan’s Fulcrum, Minnesota’s Manifold Scholarship, UBC’s Ravenspace, Coko’s Ketida); digital capacity-building or staff development at university libraries or faculties (Brown’s Digital Publications; Connecticut’s Greenhouse Studios, NYU’s Embedding Preservability, Emory’s Digital Publishing in the Humanities); digital-first programs at university presses and publishers (Stanford’s SUP Digital, UNC/Longleaf’s Path to Open, YaleUP’s digital collections, Project MUSE S2O); and digital publication support to authors directly (NEH, Emory). It’s a wide variety of approaches, stemming from the idea a decade ago that investment was needed to help push the academic book forward into the digital age, but not being at all clear just how to do so. Mellon was in a position to identify a bunch of smart people and throw money at them.[2]

Back in 2014, then-Program Officer Donald Waters laid out a vision:

…to incorporate modern digital practices into the publication of scholarship in the humanities, and ensure the dissemination of that scholarship to the widest possible audience

…to help humanities scholars and their publications to participate more fully in the interactive web

…and to assist in making digital publication a first-class means of disseminating scholarship in the humanities, not a derivative means.[3]

And most of the projects in our meeting have been working out aspects of that vision. The last ‘all-projects’ meeting was in 2017, at an interim gathering that was tied to renewals or further grants for a number of these projects; at the time the idea was to look for opportunities to connect individual projects into larger assemblages or at least to work towards financial stability for these projects over the longer term. Neither of those agendas was entirely successful.

Patricia Hswe opened the day, and the first thing on the agenda was the author panel, at which I had the honour of introducing three really interesting scholars and their publications: Shahzad Bashir (from Brown U), author of A New Vision for Islamic Pasts and Futures; Christopher Teuton (from U Washington), who is working with UBC Press’ Ravenspace to publish We Stand in the Middle: The Cherokee Natural World, a multimedia extension of his recent book Cherokee Earth Dwellers: Stories and Teachings of the Natural World; and Tyechia Thompson (from Virginia Tech), who is at work on Place, Memory, Poetry, and the James A. Emanuel Papers at the Library of Congress.

The panel talked about their goals in writing digital-first rather than in terms of the traditional book, about available platforms and the negotiation between goals and affordances, and how they imagine who they are writing for and their readers’ experiences with these publications. The latter question was pretty fertile, with some interesting insights about writing for audiences broader than the usual tightly disciplinary scope of a traditional monograph. There was some Q&A with the larger group as well, and the inevitable question, “What’s your tenure committee going to make of this?” came up. Tyechia Thompson responded enthusiastically that she was interested in being true to her work, not just to somebody’s set of rules—to considerable applause from the room.

Following the panel, reps from Mellon’s grantees did short lightning talks, the major takeaway for me being the slow but steady growth of digital scholarly works as first-class outputs. We are not yet at a tipping point here, but the scope of digital scholarship has grown across variety of levels, pushing steadily against the typically conservative academy and—most importantly—expanding the repertoire and horizon of possibilities for younger scholars.

In the afternoon, we broke out to four separate discussions (creators and audiences, community building, sustainability, tech futures). I chose the tech futures discussion, as that had always been the centre of my interest in this discourse. What ensued was somewhat depressing: we began by talking about the tension between innovation and sustainability (I raised Deb Chachra’s identification of “infrastructure” with collective value and public good);[4] we noted that major pieces of digital publishing infrastructure are mostly things borrowed from non-publishing contexts and usually owned by monopolist corporations. And then we started talking about AI, which turned out a bit “doomy,” not because of some sci-fi threat of AI, but because the looming uncertainty around generative AI—or at least its hype—brings out the dread in many of us for a variety of reasons. This is, I think, more about the uncertainty than anything about AI itself.

Tyechia Thompson said to me afterward that she thought the pessimism about AI was reflective of the sense of pessimism in the humanities more broadly (something I think is felt more in the USA than elsewhere, though I may be naïve about that). She helped me realize, for instance, that the impact of LLMs on ‘writing’ per se shouldn’t make humanists worry; she has always thought of herself as a producer rather than just a writer, despite being an “English” professor. “What actually is the work?” she asked. There are richer and poorer ways to think about how to answer that, and we talked about the real work being about appreciation and interpretation of culture, and about making connections and giving credit—that’s the work of the humanities.

  1. Two pieces I wrote: one specifically on Mellon’s grantees and one a bit more broad:

    Maxwell, John W, Alessandra Bordini, and Katie Shamash. “Reassembling Scholarly Communications: An Evaluation of the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation’s Monograph Initiative (Final Report, May 2016).” Journal of Electronic Publishing 20, no. 1 (2017).

    Maxwell, John W, Erik Hanson, Leena Desai, Carmen Tiampo, Kim O’Donnell, Avvai Ketheeswaran, Melody Sun, Emma Walter, and Ellen Michelle. Mind the Gap: A Landscape Analysis of Open Source Publishing Tools and Platforms.. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, July 2019. ↩︎

  2. Throwing money at smart people might sound less than ‘rigourous’ but this approach to funding is what led to the Internet itself. See National Research Council. Funding a Revolution: Government Support for Computing Research. National Academies Press, 1999. ↩︎

  3. Waters, Donald J. “AAUP 2014 - Town Hall: The Revolution Will Be Subsidized.” Presented at the AAUP, September 19, 2014. ↩︎

  4. Chachra, Deb. How Infrastructure Works: Inside the Systems That Shape Our World. New York: Riverhead Books, 2023. pp. 104ff. ↩︎