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Publishing Archaeology

Over the weekend, I read Amara Thorton’s Archaeologists in Print: Publishing for the People (UCL 2018). The book documents the efforts by late 19th and 20th century archaeologists to publish popular and accessible works on archaeology. She brings together these books with deep dives in the publishers’ and archaeologists’ archives and offers intriguing perspectives on how and why archaeologists worked with publishers to produce accessible, popular books that introduced the public to their sites, outlined the value of scientific practices, and allowed for more thoughtful tourism to the Eastern Mediterranean. 

More than that, it provided important insights into the professionalization of the discipline. Many of the characters of Thorton’s book were full-time, Mediterranean archaeologists who looked to popular publishing to fund their work both directly through the proceeds and by attracting subscribers to support their excavations. At the same time publishers recognized the potential audience for popular works on archaeology. An interest in archaeology paralleled the growing interest in travel and tourism among an expanding and literate middle class. The turn of the 20th century was also the start of a golden age of publishing in the UK where it was possible to produce, distribute, and sell low cost books. In short there existed the infrastructure, the audience and the motivation for popular works in archaeology. 

The book got me thinking about a few things as an archaeologist and a publisher. These are not meant to be critiques of the book, but rather reflections on whether the situation that Thorton documented in the early 20th century might have significance for 21st century academics. 

1. Popularizing Archaeology. Over the last decade, there has been more and more of a call for academics to produce popular works for the general public. While I’m not opposed to this idea, I’ve often thought that the recent pressure on academics – particularly in the humanities – to share their research in popular ways was out of step with the realities of academic work. For example, most academics do not have the time to pursue vigorously both research and popular writing. Both require more than just a casual commitment to the task to be successful. Secondly, producing high quality popular history or archaeology requires the commitment of publishers and editors to work with faculty to produce accessible works that will sell to audiences. Third, there has to be an audience for this work at a scale that is sustainable for the investment from publishers. Finally, such work needs to be institutionally incentivized because writing for the public will detract from our other responsibilities whether those are research or teaching or service.

Finally, and most importantly, calls for humanities scholars to be more engaged with the general public tend to overlook that full-time scholars in the humanities teach (or are in public facing positions at, say, museums or historical sites). In other words, we already make our work accessible on a daily basis to our students.

2. Funding the Future. It was particularly striking that relatively few of the authors in Thorton’s book had regular teaching positions. Some had research positions a museums or universities or other administrative posts to support their travels and work, but few had access to the resources that we have today. The motivation to publish for a popular audience was not, then, the recognition that the public deserved to understand the work of archaeologists, but rather often driven by financial necessity. With the rise of grant and institutionally funded research in the mid-20th century, the need to write for the public declined. 

In the 21st century, funding for research in archaeology and history looks to be an increasing challenge for academics. Not only are the number of tenure-track positions in decline (with their access both to institutional stability and the sustained investment in research), but research dollars from federal coffers (via the NEH and NSF, for example) increasingly scarce and competitive to acquire. On the one hand, this would appear to be the perfect opportunity for a new wave of popular archaeology to support research and scholarly writing. In fact, this kind of market-driven view of academic work seems to inform attitudes at the NEH and among university administrators. At its best, this would seem to suggest a more democratic approach to research.

On the other hand, this approach to funding research – or at least the view that accessibility should be a criteria for funding research – creates an arena where the market drives research as much as research questions and problems. Of course, this already occurs in the sciences, where applied research receives more funding than basic science, and that has shifted the character of university research. It would be intriguing (and to my mind, not entirely positive) to imagine how shifting attention to popular research in the humanities would shape the future discipline.

3. Possibilities of Publishing. Pushing academics to publish popular works may also require a shift in how publishing itself works. There are no lack of publishers looking to monetize the production of scholars and some of the more intriguing passages of Thorton’s work demonstrate that this was the case in the early 20th century as well. In fact, Thorton’s work shows a balance between books commissioned by publishers and works proposed by authors.

In the 21st century, it’s never been easier to publish popular works, but the audience for these works (and the competition to get them recognized) has never been more fierce. Getting a book recognized is harder than just producing good content, but also requires savvy advertising, careful attention to production, and getting access to institutional markets as well individual subscribers. As archaeology looks to the new ways of disseminating knowledge, publishing also goes beyond the traditional print media platforms to codex style books. As Thorton notes, the mid-20th century saw a number of cross media ventures which crossed from print-book popularity to radio and then television. The complexities of these markets in the 21st century – especially in the age of YouTube, streaming audio, podcasts, and social media – puts added pressure on publishers and popularizers to figure out how to get their work into the hands of an appreciative audience. An iconic book cover – like Penguin Books’ famous Pelican covers – isn’t enough (although it doesn’t hurt). 

All this other stuff – from design to marketing and promotion – represents investments of money, time, and expertise. Popular publishing requires more than academic will, but also investment from consumers and publishers needed to develop the infrastructure to accommodate and promote significant works across a range of media platforms. 

If Archaeologists in Print was written to describe popular archaeological publishing in the 21st century, it would be a very different book, even if some of the main contours of the discipline remained the same.

 

 


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