Page vs screen, Jock Phillips

Jock Phillips reflects on editing www.teara.govt.nz.

I grew up in a house full of books, where conversations inspired by books flowed free. Visits to the library were precious. I yearned to write books and will never forget that extraordinary moment when I held in my hand a copy of my first book. Books, along with magazines, were the pathway to intellectual excitement. They were the literary world. 

Then, in the 1990s, I encountered other modes of discourse. Involved in preparing exhibitions at Te Papa, I realised that objects and images and interactive games could also communicate ideas in an interesting way. I was told that the greatest sin of the exhibition designer was to put “a book upon the wall”. I also found myself assisting television programmes about New Zealand history, and accepted the potential of moving images for communicating serious ideas. Finally, a bit belatedly, I discovered digital communication when we established the New Zealand History website (nzhistory.net.nz). At the time I was Chief Historian, and there was considerable community pressure for a new encyclopedia of New Zealand, which might update the old 1966 Encyclopaedia of New Zealand and reflect new ways of thinking since then. Initially, I imagined a new version of the 1966 book – a three-volume print publication. But we could not attract funding for such a project, and my experience with the New Zealand History website, especially the astonishing number of visitors, convinced me about web publication. We explored that option further. We were hoping that government would fund the project, and I suspected that the prime minister and minister for the arts, Helen Clark, and the minister of finance, Michael Cullen, would be “book people” somewhat suspicious of a web encyclopedia. So I prepared a power-point demonstration of the advantages of a digital encyclopedia over a book one. For whatever reason, the politicians saw the logic. We were funded to prepare an online encyclopedia.

Thus began what I felt at the time was the greatest intellectual challenge of my life. For some two years, with the assistance particularly of Bronwyn Dalley, I surfed the web looking at examples of digital history and working on a format and language for an encylopedia on the web. There were no exact precedents, for the few national encyclopedias then existing were simply digitised versions of printed encyclopedias. We trialled various formats on the web and drew on user-testing techniques to see what worked and what did not. We wrestled with such issues as the length of an entry, the number of words to a screen, how many images or film clips to each page, the nature of the work flow. We were trying to develop a style and unit of production that would still work a decade later. We also began to think about content – thematic structure, entry lists, authors and their instructions.

I remember a huge sense of excitement, nervousness and expectation when the first section on the peoples of New Zealand was launched in 2005. It included entries about both the major iwi of the country and the major migrant groups, as a way of introducing everyone to everyone else. I had published books before and enjoyed the way people engaged with your new baby in reviews and publicity. Knowing the work involved in Te Ara and recognising that this first theme involved some 250,000 words and about 60 authors, nearly all distinguished scholars, I looked forward to the critics’ engagement. I was hoping their response would help us refine the presentation for future themes. I wanted an intellectual engagement.

I also remember the disappointment. My colleagues in the history profession invited the editor of the Encyclopedia of Melbourne to review the first theme, which he did fulsomely and fairly; but that was it.  No other journal gave Te Ara a serious treatment; and there was little newspaper or radio coverage. Subsequent sections passed into the ether without notice. Even the last theme, marking the conclusion of the whole project and focussing on creative and intellectual life, which would surely interest the critics, has not been reviewed.

How to explain this neglect? While Te Ara draws on existing findings, there were many entries that open up new areas where nothing existed before. There are no books or even many articles about such subjects as “street life”, or “anniversaries”, or “Māori and flags”; and the stories about the nation’s different iwi was an important project long dreamed of but not previously accomplished. While the critics refused to engage, the people did not. Since 2006, over 25 million people have visited the site, seven million over the last year. Such levels of popular engagement should in itself have led commentators to engage with the project – just compare the sales or readership of books, where 100,000 copies is a huge publishing success.

I began to suspect that what prevented serious reviewing and intellectual engagement was simply the encyclopedia’s medium – its digital publication. This was confirmed when we issued books derived from Te Ara content and suddenly the reviews flowed. We put out collections of essays about the iwi of the country, the immigrant groups, an interesting volume on natural hazards, one on New Zealanders and the sea, and a fascinating collection about Māori and the natural world, entitled Te Taiao, which was sufficiently recognised by the literary world that it won a Ngā Kupu Ora Māori Book Award. Yet the book versions were a diminished intellectual experience by comparison with the web – the number of images was far fewer, there were no film clips, there were no hyperlinks to other collections or to biographies, there was no option of engaging with instant comments.

So why does the book world ignore digital publication? The major prejudice is that the web offers superficial candy for the eye. It provides site-bites for the 30-second mind. There is undoubtedly something in this. It is harder to read long bodies of text on a screen than on a printed page – some claim it is about 25 per cent slower. Web presentation offers incentives to surf away from the main text – to images or hyperlinks or related content. Google Analytics told us that the average time most people spent on any visit to Te Ara was three to four minutes, simply not enough time to read a whole entry. Users cherry-pick. Yet there is no reason why you cannot print out a story and sit down to read it like a serious article. There are other prejudices that work against the literary reputation of the web. There are no gate-keepers. Anyone with moderate computer skills can set up their own website within half an hour; and its content will be soon indexed by Google and available to the world. The print world, by contrast, has traditions of peer review, and book publication is an expensive option which necessarily requires strong gate-keeping to justify the investment. A third prejudice is that the book world facilitates the exposition of an argument by one person. The author can unfold a story without interruption or questioning. But the web world is a collective operation involving writers, image researchers, designers, developers; and the medium invites comments and readers’ responses. It necessarily challenges the single-minded authoritarian style of the book author.

Many of these ideas are valid. There can be no question that, if you want to develop a complex argument, if you want a reader to engage with your material for 30 hours, not three minutes, then a book is the way to go and it will not be replaced, although the physical book, as distinct from the e-reader text, may become an anachronism. But it is important that the literary world engages with the web. There is enormous value there – not only mediated content such as the Dictionary of New Zealand Biography (DNZB) or Te Ara, but abundant primary sources. Anyone writing non-fiction will undoubtedly be drawing heavily upon the web’s digitised newspapers, documents and images. In a survey of New Zealand historians which I conducted in 2013, about 85 per cent were referring to web sources for historical research daily. Some digital collections, such as PapersPast, were forming the primary basis for many books. It is also noticeable that, unlike five years ago, citations to web sources, including Te Ara, are becoming acceptable in print publication (but many still cite the print version of the DNZB, although the web version, as more-up-to-date is, in effect, the authorised version). The mystery to me is why, having become dependent on the web, more writers do not acknowledge it or use it for creative exposition. The differences of the web world from the print world offer huge opportunities – its abundance and variety of sources, its social interactivity, its accessibility, its ability to be updated. If you want to explore a subject, by all means write a book in which you can aspire to hold a reader in your thrall from start to finish. But if you aim for a less authoritarian and more fluid mode, then why not present that content in a web exhibition, which can be accessed wherever people have a cell-phone or internet connection, and which provides a range of relevant materials – letters, images, collections of newspaper articles? So the author becomes the facilitator and the user finds the content for him/herself and, indeed, can contribute. At the very least, every non-fiction book should have an accompanying website, with hyperlinks to all the sources and a much greater range of illustrative materials, including moving footage, than is possible in a book, however profusely illustrated. Users would have the opportunity to engage with the evidence and add their own findings. To give one example of how this might work, a quarter of a century ago Chris Maclean and I published a book on New Zealand war memorials. It was not a great publishing success. But in preparing that book I developed a database of war memorials. Some years later, we decided to put that database and associated images up on the New Zealand History website, along with overview essays derived from the book. Jamie Mackay, the webmaster, added Google maps locations to allow people to find all the memorials. There has been a remarkable public response. Many people have added new memorials, put up additional photographs and provided a great deal of useful information about the origins of particular monuments. A static book has become an engaging site. Now, as I return to revise that book, these additions have proved invaluable.

In other words, in the literary world of the 21st century, it is not a choice between print and screen; it is rather a matter of using the particular strengths of both modes to allow ideas and information to be effectively and richly conveyed. I also look forward to the day when digital works, as well as books, receive scholarly reviews.

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