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Wednesday, 30th September 2009

In-Depth Reviews of Four Scholarly e-Book Services

Yesterday, at the bottom of this post we included a "see also" link about the ACLS (American Council of Learned Societies) Humanities E-Book database. This subscription database includes over 2,200 full-text titles from over 100, "contributing publishers, and librarians at the University of Michigan’s Scholarly Publishing Office." Today, a bit more about this database and several others.

The September issue of Reviews in History via the The Institute of Historical Research in London offers reviews of four scholarly e-book services.

All four of the e-Book services were reviewed by Mark Herring, Winthrop University. They're in-depth looks at each product (we're providing only a snippet) and we strongly suggest reading the complete review.

First, Gutenberg-e

From the Review

Gutenberg-e (not to be confused with the Gutenberg Project) began as a program of the American Historical Society (AHA) and Columbia University about a decade ago. It successes and failures are a thumbnail (no pun intended) sketch of the larger electronic publishing enterprise. Gutenberg-e is the brain trust of Princeton’s magisterial and irrepressible Robert Darnton, former president of the AHA, who proposed to address the problem of high production costs of publishing monographs by sponsoring the production of electronic books on the Internet. His ‘A Program for Reviving the Monograph’ is required reading. Darnton conceived of a program in which electronic texts would get the same scrutiny as traditional scholarly publishing, but fashioned in such a manner to match or exceed in scope and enterprise their printed cousins, owing to the flexibility allowed by the Web. After fits and starts, Gutenberg-e is the partial (more about that later) fulfillment of that proposal, one that drew upon the resources of Columbia University Press and the Mellon Foundation to succeed. Some might argue that Gutenberg-e traded the high print monograph production costs for an even higher electronic production cost on the Web. Each of the 36 texts cost about $60,000 to produce.


Gutenberg-e provides scholars and other readers with easy access to 36 of the finest dissertations written in the last half decade or so. One can and should mourn the inability to keep it afloat. But financial stability has always dogged e-texts and will continue to do so. If historical monographs are in real trouble, and humanities monographs in general slipping the way of all flesh, I don’t think anything online will save them. What will save them will be what always has: excellent writing and flawless research.

Second, Humanities E-Books

From the Review

Enter Humanities-e Books (HEB for short), a site (http://www.humanitiesebook.org/index.html) maintained by the American Council of Learned Societies (ACLS). HEB may give all digitizing naysayers a chance to utter a sigh of relief. Relief, because if journals are the perfect medium for electronic access, then HEB under the auspices of the ACLS, is an example of how to do everything other than journals right. The site grew out of a concern about humanities publishing raised by Richard Darnton among others. Something must be done, or so they felt. There had to be a way to save humanities publishing and produce a scholarly site. HEB may not have been exactly what he had in mind but it sure meets many of his earlier criteria!

The entire review is summarized on the Humanities e-Book Blog.

Third, Oxford Scholarship Online

From the Review

Whatever else one can say, the name ‘Oxford’ still has an evocative ring to it, a panache that is hard to beat, even if it does evoke a bit of that ‘jingo imperialism’ that the word might also bring to mind. Certainly in the world of books and bytes, the name of Oxford gives pause for due consideration. Oxford Scholarship Online (OSO), then, brings with it instant name recognition, an image of a raft of ingenious, glabrous men, all nodding with approval … or off to sleep, as the case may be. OSO ‘combines innovation with excellence’ we are told and brings to scholars and readers the complete texts of 2,763 titles from the austere and rightly revered and respected publishing house.(1) If that sounds a bit overblown, try this: the London School of Economics called the Oxford Scholarship Online, ‘the Holy Grail of online resources’. Library Journal’s netConnect contends that OSO is a ‘well-designed and easy-to-navigate environment. The quality features, sophisticated search functionality, and additional online content that Oxford University Press is providing are numerous, and the content speaks for itself’. You can be sure that when reviewers’ praise begins by invoking God’s grail, you know it’s got to be at least a solid, if not inerrant, resource.


OSO, meanwhile, will continue to thrive for the foreseeable future. Scholars looking for anything better will be very hard-pressed to find even a close second.

Fourth, Medieval Sources Online

From the Review

Medieval Sources Online (or as it appears most often, Medieval Sourcesonline) may not be the most newfangled of the newfangled digital offerings, but it is one of the most curious at first glance. Here is a field known for its laudator temporis acti, and yet here it is, in all its online glory. But a quick thought erases such nonsense. In another sense, medieval sources should have been online first, given their importance, as well as their variety and delight.(1) Furthermore, much of that age’s history, the hagiography, politics, religion and so on is fundamental to understanding everything else that follows.

Thankfully, the long-learned craft, our short lives, and our love of newfangledness all conspired to give us Manchester University Press’s Medieval Sources Online (MSO). Currently there are about three thousand pages of materials ‘annotated and edited to the high standard expected of a university press.’(2) Given that the press in question has more than 100 years of experience in creating such resources, scholars and students of the Middle Ages now have a primary source for teaching and research. New titles added to the series will be added to MSO following a two year embargo.

The content of MSO is not, when compared to other databases, very formidable. Indeed, one would not use the world formidable at all when describing the numeric content of MSO. As of August 2009, only 13 texts were available online...


In the interregnum, however, we can rejoice in sources like MSO because it does what the Web does, indeed, do so very, very well: it makes what may not yet have been known, known to all – at least for the time being.

Source: Reviews in History


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