Omohundro Institute of Early American History & Culture

Leading Early American Scholarship Since 1943

Quarterly Notes

Since becoming Editor of the William and Mary Quarterly on July 1, I have encountered surprise after surprise.

Some have been simple surprises, such as finding out that the Quarterly staff expects me to know what “kerning” means or learning that the editor decides on “paper versus plastic” when it comes to the bags that we use to mail the journal.

Others have been deeper and more gratifying, such as hearing how much the journal means to so many scholars, discovering the generosity of the hundreds of readers who contribute so much to the review process, and working with the amazing Institute staff.

More than anything, though, I have been surprised by how much of my four months at the Quarterly have been devoted to what we might think of as digital matters.

To be sure, I didn’t come into this job expecting that the Editor of the William and Mary Quarterly could ignore the changes buffeting the world of academic publishing. Somehow, though, I thought that the traditional facets of the Editor’s job would be central while digital matters would take a back seat. But… surprise!

My first trip as Editor came less than two weeks into my tenure: a train ride to Washington, D. C., to meet with a representative from Adobe who was guiding the Institute staff through the process of developing an app for the Quarterly.

That meeting has had a wonderful outcome—the OI Reader app was approved by Apple and it is now available for free download on iTunes and the Apple Store—but only after a truly heroic investment of time and expertise by our staff.

As that initiative was developing, we here at Team Quarterly have considered a variety of issues related to Open Access, discussed how best to encourage the submission of essays that use digital content in creative ways, and worked to realize the vision of the authors in July and October’s editions who are deploying interactive maps and audio content to materially enhance their print essays.

Meanwhile, I have had a detailed email exchange with a potential author who envisions an essay that would require many more images than we could accommodate in print but which we might be able to host—and find ways to use more effectively—on-line, and I have sent out “take down” notices to scholars who are posting copyright-protected Quarterly content on public websites. I have explained to authors and readers why simply emailing a JSTOR-derived PDF of a Quarterly essay to all and sundry hurts both the journal and the author, and I have held meetings to consider whether we would like the journal’s content to appear on Project Muse.

To be sure, this job still centers on the very concrete and not even remotely pixel-based files and the essays and readers’ reports contained therein. But in between reading essays, recruiting readers, and writing decision letters, I am discussing blog options, considering the merits of a fellowship program aimed at producing “born digital” essays, and working to keep track of the surprising ways early Americanists are experimenting with possibilities offered by this new technological world.

Unless you find yourself in the vanishingly small number of readers who believe that what surprises the current Editor is intrinsically interesting, you’ll be relieved to know that this catalogue of surprises has a larger point: the digital isn’t a facet of the Editor’s job; it is the job.

Even the things listed in the preceding paragraphs as examples of continuity are powerfully conditioned by the digital revolution. I’m as likely to read files stored in Dropbox as in my wooden inbox, and it is the very rare author or reader who I communicate with in any other medium but email. Even this “Quarterly Notes” column, which has traditionally arrived in my mailbox as part of Uncommon Sense (a publication which I have always thought should have the motto “As if you didn’t feel guilty enough about the Omohundro Institute publications that you haven’t read yet”), now will appear in an exclusively online publication.

More to the point, the field of early American history is now so thoroughly saturated with digital content and methods of communication that it makes no sense to draw a line between the digital part of my job and the rest of it. It is tempting to proclaim that we are all digital historians now, but given the skillsets of people trained in that field, that’s too simple by a good deal more than half. It’s more accurate, I think, to say that we are all now accountable for the digital possibilities—for research, writing, and publishing—that are at our disposal. I find that reality surprisingly intriguing.

Josh Piker