The Written Word in Transition: An Interview With Lisa Gitelman

Expert publishing blog opinions are solely those of the blogger and not necessarily endorsed by DBW.

Paper Knowledge By Lisa Gitelman

Paper Knowledge By Lisa Gitelman

These days, it often feels like the publishing industry is at the crossroads where old technologies meet the new. But this transitional phase is not unique to our times. Over the years, writing formats have been in constant flux, from letterpress, to mimeograph, to PDFs and, now, digital books.

Lisa Gitelman studies the history of documents at New York University. She is a Professor of English and of Media, Culture, and Communication (as well as the Department Chair). Her field of study is nothing short of the evolution of the written word.

Gitelman has recently written a book titled Paper Knowledge: Toward a Media History of Documents. The book explores the many forms written documents have taken in the last 150 years.

If you’re in the publishing industry and have ever wondered “How did we get where we are today?” Gitelman has some answers. And they may surprise you.

Beth Bacon: Your new book describes printing formats from letterpress to electronic. What can history teach today’s publishers, who are dealing with the economic turmoil of this shift of from paper to digital?

Lisa Gitelman: I think the answer is that we’ve been shifting for an awfully long time. Ever since the era of letterpress printing, people have been imagining how they could publish for themselves, more flexibly and directly, without the need for expensive equipment and contract labor. Today’s electronic publication inhabits this imaginary to some extent, but so did mimeographs and offset printing in the 1930s, and so did photocopies in the 1960s and “desktop” publishing in the 1980s. What publishers have today that makes a difference is less a matter of technology, I think, than it is a matter of DRM (digital rights management) and competition among platforms. Our whole ongoing conversation — Print v. Digital or Book v. eBook – obscures an awful lot about media history, but it also tends to distract the popular imagination (if I can generalize) from important questions about political economy, the roles of gatekeepers, and what we want publishing to be in the Twenty-first Century.

BB: You mention the PDF as a milestone in digital documentation. Do you think PDFs (created by individuals) have affected the way we communicate more than ebooks (created by publishers and authors)?

LG: This is a hard question because there is something of a false dichotomy lying at its heart. Whether publishers and authors today produce printed books or ebooks, I’m guessing there’s a PDF somewhere in their production process. Right? So the difference between “individuals” and published authors is less about technology and more about, well, business. I would guess, though, that the widespread familiarity of PDFs has helped people to think about authoring and publishing in new ways.

BB: Your book notes that Modern Language Association declared recently that print is no longer the “default medium.” Can you talk about what that means for publishers?

LG:  I’m actually critical of that formulation, since to think of print as a default or as a non-default is to imagine that print is one thing, a stable and coherent entity or process, when we know from the histories of publishing, reading, and authoring that “print” designates a hugely diverse and changeable medium, multiple technologies and infinite uses. If we persist in thinking of print as something simple, then I think we risk ending up with a really reductive understanding of electronic publication by contrast. The more we understand print as a long-lived and radically heterogeneous category—embracing Gutenberg’s letterpress and more recent offset processes, for example, and everything from newspapers and books to dollar bills and receipts—the more we will be able to see the radical heterogeneity of contemporary forms and their extraordinary potential.

BB:  Digital documents can include much more than paper ones—audio, video, animation, and interactivity.  How is this changing what we write about and what we read?

LG: Great question, and I wish I knew the answer. Scholars tend to point toward a long history of competition between word and image, in which the image has in modern times gained the upper hand. Maybe we will see that trend continued in new ways. What we don’t need is moral panic. I am reminded that there was once a time when pundits and other arbiters of taste worried that people were reading too many novels; now it’s common to hear pundits and others worry that people are reading too few!

BB: Today, we define digital books that follow the traditional paper form as ebooks, and those that include lots of multimedia as “apps.” Based on your understanding of the past, do you see all ebooks eventually giving way to multimedia apps? Does the written word stand a chance against sound, video, and interactivity?

LG: Well if you’re asking whether we are in jeopardy of becoming a post-literate society, watching screens instead of reading words, I think the answer is emphatically no. Even if multimedia forms come to dominate some segments of the commercial publishing industry, the written word will prevail. Remember, programmers don’t draw “apps” or play them musically, they write them. Look at it this way and the world around us—its interactivity and its immersiveness—is more profoundly written than at any time in the past. We might worry that people-who-write-code have more cultural authority and financial security than people-who-write-poems, but that is hardly news.

 BB: Thank you.

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