Thursday, 3 May 2012

#LIKE35 - Books, why bother? by Anne Welsh

I've not been able to blog much lately, as unfortunately things like essays, exam revision and job hunting have had to take priority! All my coursework for last term was handed in last week, and my Professional Awareness exam is over and done with, so I'm going to take the opportunity to have a bit of a blogging session. 

Last week I went into London for a LIKE event. The speaker was Anne Welsh (who teaches us cataloguing at UCL and has the dubious pleasure of being my dissertation supervisor!). Her topic was 'Books, Why Bother?', exploring why we bother with books when there are now cheaper, quicker and easier ways to publish our ideas. Anne's first book, Practical Cataloguing: AACR, RDA and MARC21, co-authored with Sue Batley, has just been published (and is selling like mad by the sound of it!)
From the quick show of hands at the start, a very large proportion of the group had written a blog, about half had written a journal article, fewer had written a peer-reviewed journal article, and one or two had written books (but several more would like to write a book in the future).

When there are so many other methods of communication, why bother to write a book? Seth Godin, in his blog post Why write a book states:
If you've never written a non-fiction book, there are a lot of reasons why you might want to. It organizes your thoughts. It's a big project worthy of your attention.
I don't think anyone would argue that a book is a big project (Anne's has taken over two years, mainly due to changes in RDA!), however writing for other formats would help to structure your thoughts just, so why a book in particular?

A major incentive for writing a book is that it establishes you as an expert in your field. Springer's website has a section on Why write a book?, where they argue that "A book serves as a kind of business card: it helps define your reputation in your chosen field." I didn't know this before, but there is no recognition for writing textbooks in the Research Excellence Framework (REF) - as a good textbook will be consolidating existing research, it is not a piece of original research. This is bad news for academics, but good news for others, as it means there is a gap in the market for practitioners to write this kind of book.

However as a lecturer, Anne wanted her students to have a resource that reflected her teaching. Anne pointed out that if the lecturer has problems with the text they are using, it makes it more difficult to communicate to students. The current "cataloguing bible", Essential Cataloguing by John Bowman, is most likely not going to be updated, as RDA is such a major change and John is now retired. Therefore part of Anne's motivation was to write her own textbook, as a resource for both UCL students, and students on other library courses that do not teach cataloguing.

With this particular book, there was also the desire to represent UK cataloguing, as most publications on the topic of RDA are being written by Americans and a few Canadians. Anne has written about RDA on her blog, and there is a lot of RDA stuff out there on the web, however Anne sees the content on her blog as more embrionic, a way to test the water for new ideas, whereas the process of writing a book is different, it is a way to make meaning - to make sense of the new standards and present this information in a way that could help others to make their own sense of it. Having a published book also serves as a benchmark in teaching history, providing unequivocal proof for future scholars that this was how this subject was being taught in 2012, in a way that shifting, evolving content on the web could not. 

Moving on from reasons for writing a book, to the actual experience of doing so, Anne pointed out that making the move from blogging to writing a book could very easily be a lonely experience. When blogging, you get comments and feedback very quickly, and so it is fairly easy to know your audience. The production cycle of a book is so long, that it is important to get feedback as you go along. The cataloguing community is a very strong one, so Anne had lots of people available to get feedback from and remind her of her audience (a novel experience for one friend apparently, who protested that their entire career structure was based on being completely ignored by everyone!).

Finally we came back to format again, with some discussion about e-books. Anne quoted a US study where 80 students were given Kindles preloaded with electronic versions of texts, and were later surveyed. 72% of the participants preferred the electronic version over print. However it is unclear to what extent the provision of the preloaded Kindles was a factor, if they had to buy the device themselves and download the texts this might have changed the outcome significantly. In surveys my library has conducted for instance, students are nowhere near this enthusiastic about e-books!

It all depends on the subject I suppose, some things will be more appropriate as a book, and other things would be better suited to being published and freely available online. I'm not exactly someone who needs convincing that books are still worth bothering about, but found the talk very interesting and entertaining nevertheless!  

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