Tuesday, December 16, 2008

What supports the DCB?

Over the years, I have contributed a few short pieces to the Dictionary of Canadian Biography, so I got a “Dear Chris” letter recently from General Editor (and terrific political biographer) John English. It’s their annual fundraising appeal, to which indeed I have responded from time to time.

Among successes for the DCB, John English points to DCB Online, now receiving almost 200,000 visits a month. Among problems, he notes the DCB no longer gets support for the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council. “Our main source of revenue is the annual intellectual property licensing agreement with the federal government that makes our research available online. We have no certainty of such funding past the spring of 2009.”

Well, he certainly makes the DCB sound worthy of your support. But I keep re-reading those quoted sentences. I think they mean the “intellectual property licensing agreement” is a euphemism; presumably the DCB has been getting a grant of federal funds dressed up as a licensing agreement. The feds can stop their gifting next spring -- or whenever they like. No one who benefits from having the DCB online is really licensing their use of it. We all get it free, and the feds cough up a subsidy, at least for the time being.

The DCB online is a marvellous thing, much more convenient and accessible and searchable than those handsome dead-tree volumes I have ornamenting a shelf across the room right now. But except when the feds throw in some charity and call it a licensing agreement, the value in the whole enterprise seems to be unmonetizable. The DCB’s online success seems also to mark the deathknell of this kind of serious (and expensive) collaborative scholarship.

How did we come to this pass? In magazines, in journalism, in music, in so many fields (and their number grows constantly), all the new, efficient, and convenient (i.e., online) methods of publishing and disseminating are economically unsustainable, because on the internet everything has to be “free” (free as in beer, that is; free as in no one pays). The digital world seems determined to mimic ‘fifties television, where viewing had to be free and the tyranny of advertising produced the vast wasteland.

Oddly enough, universities and academic scholars, the same ones who produce most of and benefit most from projects like the DCB, have been most vociferous in insisting on their right to free digital stuff -- and therefore to the economic crisis of institutions like the DCB. The world of scholarship still need to grasp the concept that stuff online is worth paying for – and to stop undermining the development of models by which it will be paid for.

Meanwhile, if supporting the DCB seems like your (tax-deductible) thing, you can reach them here.
Follow @CmedMoore