Friday, 11 May 2012

Dreaming Dreams

When new technologies emerge, they tend to be used to perform old tasks but in slightly new ways. After a while it becomes apparent that one can extend this and do entirely new things.  The digital revolution is so recent that it is only now becoming obvious that it is making new kinds of communication possible. I have become aware of this as an academic who spent the first thirty years of his career publishing hard-back books through conventional publishing presses, but now in his retirement can think about creating entities which are very different from what I could have imagined even five years ago. Let me illustrate with my own current work.

I have inherited many boxes of family papers on the history of my family since the seventeenth century. I have also not thrown away much since I was about sixteen. Consequently, as I sit down to write a biography of the British Empire, and an autobiography of myself, I am faced with a dilemma which previously would have been insurmountable.  There is so much material that it could be turned into dozens of books. But these are books which no commercial publisher could venture to publish. And the readership of these books is scattered around the world, so that most people who are potentially interested would never find them in an English or American bookshop.

The advent of the digital world resolves these problems quite simply. One looks at the book as one part of the publication. Behind the shorter analytic work, one can put up a website with the scanned documents, indexed full transcripts, photographs, films and other materials. So those who want to go into depth can do so. The original papers, meanwhile, cane be made available from archives. Thus it is possible to think of layers of communication, with the book as just one layer in a multi-media project.

Secondly, the publication itself can now be made flexible and the up-front costs of conventional publishing are diminished so much that an author can write and publish the book they want to make available, at the length and with the number of illustrations they like, without facing the impossibility of commercial publishing, or the cost of ‘vanity’ publishing.

I have started on this process and it may be worth illustrating part of what I mean by drawing attention to the publication of the first part of this new venture (available on various publisher’s websites). The Dragon Triptych, consists of three books, totalling over 1100 pages with over 150 pages of illustrations, concerning the life of two boys, myself and Jamie Bruce Lockhart, at a preparatory boarding school 1950-5, and at home with their families. The books are based on over 400 letters we wrote at the time, but only parts of these letters and other documents can be used. The original materials will be deposited in the Dragon School and University of Cambridge archives. The full letters and scans will be made available as a database.
Forerunners of our project can be seen in the digital databases and projects described on

The important thing is to dream dreams, to imagine what is not yet possible, and then have the delight of finding the technology catching up with the dreams.

Alan Macfarlane.

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