The Humanities Open Book Program, sponsored jointly by the National Endowment for the Humanities and the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, is an effort to make out-of-print scholarly work once again available to scholars, students, and the general public, free of charge, in the form of high-quality, searchable ebooks. It is in many ways a bold, technologically savvy, forward-looking embrace of twenty-first-century developments in publishing and higher education—so what better person to bring on to help usher this dream into reality than an old-fogey stick-in-the-mud like myself who likes nothing better than poking around in museums and used-book stores, prefers riding trains to airplanes, and has never read an ebook cover to cover (or whatever it is they have instead of covers) in his life?
For me, much of the joy of creating these digital editions came out of the act of digging through our analog past. The basement of Sage House, our Victorian mansion-cum-university infirmary-cum-word factory, contains about a half-dozen dimly lit rooms in which file cabinets of varying age, design, and shades of gray rest at curious angles on the uneven stone floor. These are crammed with acquisition, editorial, and royalty files going back forty years. It was these files that I consulted to clear third-party rights for the art, quotations, and previously published chapters that are part of most scholarly books. Another room is lined with shelves holding ring-binders dating from 1941, containing cover designs, catalogue copy, and review clippings for nearly every book published by Cornell University Press since the attack on Pearl Harbor. These binders proved useful for gauging a work’s initial critical reception when I helped choose substitute titles for the few that had to be dropped from the initial list for one reason or another. Mixed or even negative reviews could indicate a scholar’s role in upsetting consensus and shifting paradigms.
In many cases, the books chosen were early works by scholars who have become among the most respected men and women in their fields. Almost all of them were delighted to have these early works brought back; none expressed embarrassment. One generation of scholars often hearkened back to another. In the acknowledgments to Literary Transcendentalism (by the way, when you like a book, ALWAYS read the acknowledgments), Laurence Buell thanked several professors, including James McConkey, Walter Slatoff, and Jonathan Bishop, who had been inspirational during my own undergraduate studies at Cornell in the 1980s. I was pleased to have the chance to drop the business-letter prose for a few lines and share my gratitude with Professor Buell during our brief email exchange.
One of the distinctive features of the Cornell Open program is that it is centered around the books themselves. It is not a database or an aggregation (as useful as these can be), but a collection of finite objects, infinitely reproducible but self-contained. The original books had to be retrieved from our dusty archives or, in some cases, bought from used-book dealers over the Internet, and sent to our compositor for OCR scanning and digital conversion, the fruits of which are passed on to Cornell University Press’s production and marketing departments for metadata enrichment, loading onto digital platforms such as JSTOR, Project Muse, and our own Cornell Open website and other magical operations of which I know little. It has been a surprisingly rewarding experience adding my small contribution to the transformation of ink into pixels (a much easier feat of alchemy than the transformation of ideas into ink), and it’s gratifying to see these works once again commanding the attention they deserve.
James McCaffery is our able digital publishing assistant, despite his preference for the ink-stained and leather-bound aspects of publishing. You can follow him on Twitter @jwmccaferry