The Digital Press at the Northern Great Plains History Conference

Tomorrow, I head north to Brandon, Manitoba (provided I can locate my passport!) to visit the Northern Great Plains History Conference to talk about The Digital Press at the University of North Dakota on a panel organized by Digital Press author and history department colleague, Eric Burin. The panel will involve discussion of various modes of outreach with Nikki Berg-Burin discussing activist history, Eric discussing writing history in “real time” in his work on Collin Kaepernick, and me discussing the potential of open access, scholar-led publishing and to tell a bit of the story of The Digital Press. The panel is a round-table format so we hope to engage the audience in substantial ways.

This is also one of my early efforts to articulate the story of the Digital Press as part of my larger research program as opposed to part of my service responsibilities. This isn’t really very interesting to folks who work outside the university, but often our efforts at our job are irrationally divided (or siloed) into one of three categories: teaching, research, and service. There are often different funding streams that support work in these different categories and different expectations whereby our work in these categories is evaluated. This is mainly arranging the deck chairs on the Titanic, but I’m not really going to talk about that.

What I want to talk about, albeit briefly, on Thursday morning is the origin and trajectory of the Digital Press. This is a story that I’ve told many time for different purposes, but this time, I want to think about how scholar-led, open access publishing offers a model for how structural change within the publishing process can lead to works that engage a wider audience, that operate outside of scholarly conventions, and that challenge the role of the publisher, scholar,  and reader.

As for the origin myth, I’m going to introduce The Digital Press, by talking about my blog. In 2007, when my blog started, I wasn’t really thinking about The Digital Press, but I was thinking about new ways for scholars to engage with a wider audience. I wanted to make the knowledge making process more visible to the general public and generate, I hoped, a greater sympathy for the messy work of scholarly production (at least in archaeology). 

These efforts matured (or at least continued) into something that my colleague Kostis Kourelis and I called Punk Archaeology. It started with a co-authored blog that its now largely shuttered. While the definition of Punk Archaeology remains intentionally vague and occasionally contested, for me, it centered on performativity, DIY, and complicating the relationship between publishers and producers of academic knowledge. The first two notions, of performativity and DIY are well within the wheel house of archaeological work where ad hoc approaches to archaeological problems are standard practice and the performance of archaeological work is central to the creation of legitimate forms of disciplinary knowledge. We can punk these up to some extent, but only so far as we respect the historical, epistemological baggage of the discipline of archaeology. We can’t just trash the place and call it punk.

In the Northern Great Plains History Conference, I want to talk briefly about the third aspect of punk archaeology and that’s the work to complicate the relationship between publishers and academics. When enthusiasm for Punk Archaeology was at its peak, we decided to run a small conference and invite some of the most enthusiastic practitioners to come to Fargo, North Dakota, in the middle of winter, to a bar, where we listened to bands, talked about punk and archaeology, and had a good time. When the conference was done, we decided to publish a book based on the papers, and in good punk rock style we decided to simply do it ourselves. (I’ve always been particularly inspired by the anarcho-punk band Crass who set up their own label to manage their own music and the music of like-minded bands in the UK in the 1970s). 

The book, Punk Archaeology, edited by Andrew Reinhard, Kostis Kourelis, and myself, was a success with close to 2000 downloads since its publication in 2014 and a smaller number in sales. It has enjoyed citation in top tier journals and has emerged as a touchstone for panels at academic conferences, special issues of journals, and discussions in surveys. 

It also spawned The Digital Press, which seeks to carry on the spirit of Punk Archaeology. Since that 2014 volume, we have published 14 books. In keep with with the spirit of punk, we have sought out an found a range of great collaborators in our authors and in various institutions including the journal Epoiesena journal for creative engagement in history and archaeology based at Carleton in Ottawa, the century-old literary journal, North Dakota Quarterly based at University of North Dakota, the Norwegian publisher, Spartacus Forlag AS, North Dakota’s public radio station, Prairie Public Radio, a Canadian anarchist comic book publisher, Ad Astra ComixUND’s Writing, Editing, and Publishing program, and the American Schools of Oriental Research. 

These partners have ensured that each of the books that we’ve published (or are in production) are cooperative enterprises which leverage the expertise, skills, and energy of our partners. More than that, these groups have helped us find ways to manage the cost and energy of producing and marketing books in a fair and equitable way so that we can offer almost every book in our catalogue as free, open access downloads. For many of these works, the Press was involved from before the first word was put down on the page and throughout the writing, revising, editing, and production process. This kind of “vertical integration” allowed us to build a kind of mutual understanding of the larger publishing project and collaborate in ways that ensure the final product is accessible, while still maintaining high standards and taking opportunities to innovate. These opportunities for collaboration motivate us to continue to  look for new partners as well to get our books into more people’s hands (and on their screens), to complicate our ideas of scholarly publishing, and to contribute to the diversity in knowledge production throughout the academic ecosystem.

The most rewarding and exciting thing about The Digital Press, from its start with Punk Archaeology, to its modest current plateau of four or five books per year, is that it continues to demonstrate that collaborative, scholar-led publishing offers a viable complement to long-standing practices in traditional academic publishing that likewise bridge the gap between academic books and broader public audiences.   


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