Posted on January 28, 2016 by Colleen Skidmore
In December 2015, forty specialists in photography and its history in Canada gathered for a workshop at the National Gallery of Canada. Our purpose was to study a simple idea but a vast ambition: how to collaborate on the development of a written and exhibited history of Canadian photography. The group included curators, collectors, dealers, publishers, scholars, archivists, and, yes, a photographer. Projects and activities from a range of media (print, screen, exhibition, installation, festival, and digital), national institutions, and viewpoints were sampled to stimulate imaginations and broaden participants’ knowledge of work underway.
While I was involved because of my scholarship as a photography historian, my interest in the evolving landscape of scholarly publication and research dissemination was equally piqued. And one project in particular, the Canadian Online Art Book Project of the Art Canada Institute, stood out. This project represents a researcher-driven approach to publishing, oriented to a general, rather than academic, readership, built upon an infrastructure (but not content) that differs from monograph formats, and is openly accessible on the internet.
Art Canada Institute and its publishing program are the creation of Sara Angel, currently a doctoral student and Trudeau Fellow at the University of Toronto. Angel’s career in book and magazine publishing intersects with her scholarly interest in Canadian art in this endeavour. Her fellowship provided seed funding for what has become a vibrant and apparently popular publishing program: web browsing readers around the world account for about 200,000 hits a year, and downloads of between 2,500 and 15,000 copies of each title – in contrast to the usually few hundred copies sold of scholarly print titles in Canada. The ACI and its publications are funded through philanthropic sponsorship (ACI is non-profit research institute at Massey College, governed by a board of directors, while the publishing program is overseen by an editorial advisory committee and a commissioning editor, and currently operated by one full-time employee and a team of contactors). The “books” are written by established specialists, and are free to read online or download. Of the fifty titles to be commissioned, fifteen have appeared since November 2013, each on three digital platforms and in both English and French. Demand for print led to the first print edition with 200 copies of one title appearing in late 2015.
Subject specialists (scholars, curators, archivists) write the digital manuscripts for a reading and gallery-going public, and indeed the publications are in some ways an amalgam of the visual experiences of on-line reading and gallery visiting. Each is organized to a template, illustrated with high-quality reproductions, and limited to 15,000 – 17,000 words (the equivalent of two or three scholarly articles as compared to monographs in the 80,000 – 110,000 words range). The format is friendly: the reader works with drop-down menus to move to different sections in the text, a more flexible approach for readers that the usual pdf or flowable text formats based on print that curse the e-book and are especially ill-suited to publication and reading of image-laden art and photography histories. This format is by no means the as-yet-elusive holy grail for digital books: matching if not bettering the quality and flexibility of the print reading experience in which quickly and intuitively flipping, cross-referencing, dipping in and out, and moving around in a non-fiction book is both a given and essential to engagement. On the other hand, while the template produces a comfortable and comparable reading experience across the series, it also confines the writer and reader to a predicable, more linear than lateral, intellectual experience.
At the workshop, Angel stated that she was prompted to launch the program when she visited the Canadian art history section of Robarts Library at U Toronto. There she found books that were mostly from a generation or more in the past, with little published since the 1980s, and saw opportunity to refresh the canon with new versions of established narratives. Her experience resonated for many of the non-academic participants who made up the majority of the workshop attendees. These informed and dedicated constituents were keen to see published – in print – a book (but not necessarily a scholarly monograph) about the history of Canadian photography because, in their experience, there is nothing of its kind out there.
The problem is, a significant contingent of scholars, curators, archivists, journalists, and independent writers across the country have been researching, writing, speaking, and publishing excellent scholarship and outstanding books, exhibition catalogues, and articles about historical and contemporary Canadian art and photography over the past four decades. The sample projects presented at the workshop were a taste of the range of activity. Furthermore, Canada is blessed with a dedicated audience whose interests in art and photography made in and about the country run deep. New titles, such as a general volume about photography and Canada, are continually sought and appreciated. What the workshop at the National Gallery made clear is that the constantly growing body of scholarly work is not encountered by the broad spectrum of interested readers. Rather, it seems to disappear from sight in the “post-print” world, not only from paper stacks into off-site storage facilities of bricks-and-mortar academic libraries, but also into the maw of the gated web. Founding of the ACI is one example of a response to this problem.
If a reader does not have access to an academic library’s journal database, they no longer have access to most journals, which they used to be able read by simply stepping into a library’s public reading room. Nor is there as much such access to new or recent monographs or exhibition catalogues that are more likely to be acquired by academic libraries, if at all, in a digital format. Beyond academic libraries, distribution of Canadian art and photography printed monographs seems to have become limited for the greater part to gallery and independent bookstores, occasionally an on-line retailer, and some public libraries, where browsers may be lucky enough to discover titles of interest. Broadening popular readership of well-informed, well-written photography and art histories is an ambition of scholars, curators, archivists, journalists, and freelance authors. It is also the ideal of open access in the wake of digital technology and, clearly, readers’ desire. Ironically, “discoverability” for Canadian readers appears to have diminished in equal measure.