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Martin Paul Eve

Professor of Literature, Technology and Publishing at Birkbeck, University of London

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Amid my travels this month I've been keeping an excited and close eye on the progress of Jo Guldi and David Armitage's The History Manifesto. This interest is both a matter of content and form. I greatly enjoyed reading the book even though I am not a historian and found many of its arguments compelling (I had some critical thoughts of my own on aspects of the text but would need to do a bit of further thinking before articulating them).

Of more direct relevance to my own current work, however, was the way in which this text was published and the responses that it has garnered, possibly as a result. The History Manifesto was the first book to be published open access by Cambridge University Press under their own steam (they had previously participated in Knowledge Unlatched). I am interested both because this book seems to be an exemplar of the ways in which online, unlimited, paywall-free dissemination can spark intense discussion but also because I will be the second author to benefit from this provision (albeit on a book about open access).

So, what kind of response has this book seen? Well, to my mind, it has had an extraordinary amount of discussion. I cannot prove, of course, that this is due to the open access nature of the text; correlation is not causality. That said, I have seen discussions on Facebook (unprompted by me), where academics discussing the book have linked directly to the chapter under discussion. Others have then gone and read the work and joined the debate. As far as I am concerned, this is unheard of. Naturally, Guldi and Armitage's book is a disciplinary polemic (what else would one expect from a book that takes its spectral echo from another famous Manifesto for its first sentence?) which may account for the ferocity of discussion. Few aspects are given as much space as “future of the discipline”-type tracts, after all.

That said, this seems to go further than that. The Modern British Studies research centre at the University of Birmingham is rolling out a series of responses to the text, currently numbering five. I cannot think of another contemporary academic book that has garnered quite such a level of immediate debate beyond the mainstream media think-piece obsession over Thomas Picketty's Capital. I have seen people using the hashtag #historymanifesto on Twitter to discuss the book, an aspect that is like gold dust for book marketeers. Again, whether this is due to the OA nature of the text or not is unclear. It can't, though, hurt that those who want to know what it is about can find a full copy of the work freely available online.

Interestingly, but unsurprisingly for me, the area of marketing that seems slower than others to proceed is the associated forum. I had a discussion with Guldi about this on Twitter. It seems to me that people no longer communicate in specific spaces to discuss niche topics. Instead, they use general purpose channels (Twitter, blogs etc.) and segment the discussion through (hash)tagging. This presents a dilemma for authors and marketers. Readers want to control where and how they discuss works. Authors want to be able to monitor and capture that discussion for a variety of purposes. These aspects sit in tension with one another.

Which leads me all to one final observation. We're only taking the very first steps towards understanding what might be possible with open access books and the types of engagement that they might facilitate. Indeed, last week, to my great delight, finally launched. This tool, which is an open-source web annotation tool, could be the future. The idea is that readers can write their own private or public annotations (all of which are uniquely addressable and citable) that can mutate into conversations, all alongside the original document for those who have the plugin. This might present a way in which we could reconcile the tension between capturing discussions and giving people the ability to discuss in areas that suit them. After all, what could be more convenient that communicating on the text itself? What benefits might this have for teaching, where students might be able to share annotations across a communal text, ready for the seminar? It is, of course, early days and the irony of thinking on the future from a just-published book that is, itself, about long-term thinking is not lost on me. That said, I can't help but feel somewhat hopeful and excited.