Dr Jon Hogg, Senior Lecturer at the Department of History, University of Liverpool, talking to Alison Welsby, Editorial Director at Liverpool University Press about a forthcoming Open Access e-textbook, Using Primary Sources:
- Tell us about ‘Using Primary Sources’.
This is an ambitious e-textbook designed to help students in their study of History at university. Funded by JISC, it’s a three year collaborative project exploring ‘the institution as e-textbook publisher’. Academics are working with a team from the University Library and Liverpool University Press, and our central aim is to offer students practical advice on the variety of ways they can analyse and then incorporate primary source materials into coursework.
The e-textbook will be wide-ranging, accessible and practically focused. We already have over thirty historians from the UK and the USA authoring nearly thirty thematic chapters. They are working with library staff in the digitisation and curation of source materials online via the Biblioboard platform, and then with Liverpool University Press for copyediting, typesetting and marketing, plus a print publication.
Most of the primary source material referred to in the textbook will emerge from existing History teaching at Liverpool, and collections in the University libraries. In the coming years, this promises to enhance the student experience by offering practical, relevant and accessible advice for students in a way that supports research-led teaching and learning.
- Why have you opted for an electronic publication instead of a conventional print format?
It allows us to do so much. Having the authored chapters alongside digitised source materials will allow students to search the source materials alongside the authored chapters. The source materials are fully searchable, and the software has some excellent features, such as zooming in on delicate or faint manuscripts, or allowing us to embed images, music and film. Alongside documents and photographs, we’ve already uploaded some really unusual materials, such as high quality photos of badges, and even baseball caps! It allows for real visual variety, alongside outstanding levels of detail when it comes to the categorisation of documents. We can also offer links to external websites, which will aid students further. One great benefit is that we can revise, or add to, the e-textbook in the future, so the possibilities are really exciting.
- When did you decide it should be open access and why?
This was all part of the original funding agreement, and we are very happy that our work will be accessible to all. We like the fact that this is a new type of publication, and we are looking forward to seeing how it is used, and what difference open access makes to how the book is received. It means we can reach out to new audiences, and we are still working out who those audiences might be. The open access format means that we can explore other possibilities in the future, such as using the resource for our outreach activity with schools and sixth form colleges, and it also serves as a flagship resource for the library and Liverpool University Press.
- What have been the challenges so far due to the format and platform?
There have been lots of challenges so far, but overcoming them has actually be quite enjoyable! Working in this way is new for most of us on the project team, and we are quite open about this. We communicate regularly, and seem to solve problems quite quickly. Uploading materials onto Biblioboard requires a surprising amount of planning and thinking time, and getting used to the functions that the software offers also takes time.
So, I suppose one big challenge is time, and you have to be patient. We have to wait for authors to complete their work, and then work with them to revise and edit their chapters, while also curating their selected sources online: obviously, this work can’t be rushed if you want top quality contributions. Because of the student-focused nature of this publication, I think it’s safe to say that all authors have found it challenging adapting to a different writing style. Because of the volume of contributions, we planned a staggered submission period, and asked authors to stick to a prescribed template for their chapters. Being open access means that we’ve had to check copyright status on a range of materials, but some external archives have been very happy for us to use their materials free of charge, which has been a nice surprise!
- Are there any future plans for the project?
We have been discussing this recently. Of course, we will need to understand how students respond to the e-textbook, understand how the book is being used, and we can think of ways to enhance the project as we move forward. We have learned so much (and we’re still learning every day), so I think most of us have developed new expertise which I hope we can carry forward in some way.
We will need to respond to some important questions posed by JISC, such as: does the institution as e-textbook creator help students by providing a more affordable and effective higher education? Does it promote a better, more sustainable information environment for libraries, students and faculty? From a pedagogical point of view it will be fascinating to see how students respond to this sort of practical advice, in this format. In the end, we also hope that this e-textbook might serve as a template for similar publications at Liverpool and beyond, demonstrating the rich possibilities for students if these exciting projects are carried out.
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