In Praise of Pointless Publishing

This past couple weeks, I’ve begun working on the next book from The Digital Press at the University of North Dakota. The book is a field manual for a major archaeological excavation and once we have the final permissions cleared, we’re get the book into production. As I’ve talked bout this book with various people on my editorial board and some cooperative reviewers, many have responded “what’s the point”” 

On a practical level, I appreciate the question. We all have limited reserves of energy and any activity – whether scholarly, academic, or simply recreational – should have a goal, a point, or some value. After all, our ability to do for a reason is what separates humans from my two dogs. At the same time, I’ve begun to think about books and publishing outside the immediate reward of a clearly articulated, receptive audience. 

I’ve enjoyed in particular the recent trend toward publishing design and standards manuals for various public entities. Standards Manual in New York has revived the 1975 NASA graphics standards manual, the 1976 Bicentennial Symbol guide, and the 1970 NYCTA standards manual. I’ve also enjoyed the 1965 British Rail Corporate Identity Manual. These books no longer serve their purpose as design and standards manuals, but nevertheless offer an intriguing perspective on how institutions implemented complex design programs. The purpose of these books is unclear. On the one hand, they aren’t archival copies of rare editions. They aren’t particularly useful guides – unless you’re researching an institution that is as expansive as NASA or British Rail. They don’t reflect contemporary digital practices or corporate standards. They’re monuments to design, to be sure, but design situated in a particular time and place.

This week, I got a lightly used copy of Bill Dever and and Darrell Lance’s A Manual of Field Excavation: Handbook for Field Archaeologists (Cincinnati 1978).  The book originated as the field manual for their dig at Gezer in Israel. The guide is dated, in as much as it doesn’t feature the latest elements of digital practice, but at the same time is utterly charming. It circulated widely enough that it isn’t difficult to find an inexpensive copy in good condition. Field manuals are like graphic design and standards manuals. They typically have a limited life-span, a particular purpose, and a very specific context. Their utility as field manuals is limited except perhaps as general guides to other projects and they’re usually common enough in project archives or on the web that publishing them offers little in terms of access or circulation.

Despite that, there is still something about making a book and presenting these manuals formally even if our intended audience remains a bit vague. 

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