I have been working for long enough in digital publishing to have reflected on the whole academic workflow. In my professional life I can claim, rather vaguely, that I help publishers and institutions make better use of digital tools, but even after many years of involvement with this process, I don’t claim to have all, or even most, of the answers. But perhaps I can identify some of the issues. I don’t write code, but I’ve been working in that nebulous area between users and software developers for many years, and perhaps I can help those involved in the process to think digitally, and then to employ or build effective tools to improve their workflow.
Having been a publisher, I think I have some idea what makes content effective. It’s easy to create content, but once published, your content may not solve your users’ problems. It might be that they can’t find the content; or that it doesn’t answer their questions. The solution might be technical (perhaps better use of text analytics); it might even be that the text was written (or not written) clearly; it might be the content does not address the user’s problem statement. But it is rarely, if ever, just one of those aspects.
I have a background in many aspects of structured digital content, from dictionaries and encyclopedias to content management systems. I have worked with publishers to provide strategic guidance and implementation for digital projects, including content enrichment, information architecture, information-based websites and content repositories. I have been in publishing for some 30 years, working across a wide range of publishing sectors, including academic (Cambridge University Press), educational (Pearson), trade (Dorling Kindersley, Random House), reference (Helicon Publishing, where I managed the team that created digital editions of several versions of The Hutchinson Encyclopedia), and professional (the IET, CABI, Building Research Establishment, The Stationery Office (TSO). In truth, there is some commonality between all these. Other clients comprise a wide range of information providers, including newsletter publishers (Electric Word) and magazine publishers (KHL). My perspective has been widened by also working with software companies producing content management software (CSW Group, Abacus E-Media). I have written an introductory book about content licensing (Content Licensing, 2009).
Why the interest in reference publishing? I won’t go into how I organised all my books in alphabetical order at the age of nine. I started my publishing career in reference publishing – I was involved in early drafts of the Dorling Kindersley Children’s Encyclopedia, I edited EFL dictionaries for Longman (now Pearson), I took over The Hutchinson Encyclopedia in the last days of Hutchinson as an independent publisher, then while at Random House built it into a whole range of database-based reference titles for Helicon Publishing, including the first UK CD-ROM and online encyclopedias. But that was all ages ago! I used to have a specific website about reference publishing, but in the end I found I could never draw an accurate line between reference, metadata, and findability. All the relevant posts can be found on this site.
Today I make my living in the area of text analytics, working with publishers to enhance their digital publishing, and sometimes (just sometimes) these projects touch on principles of information presentation and retrieval that are in fact the same principles used in reference publishing. And in any case, I retain a sentimental fondness for reference works. I still have the Enlightenment dream within me of making knowledge accessible, intelligible, and enjoyable – and not reserved for an elite. I’m probably a geek – I am enthusiastic about discovering a new (or old) reference work, print or digital, to see how well it solves an information problem. While I am an enthusiastic user of Wikipedia, I certainly don’t believe that Wikipedia represents a model of how to create a reference work, or that it should supersede the thousands of more specific subject reference works that preceded it (and will hopefully continue to be published).
I am a Member of the British Computer Society (MBCS) and a former Member of the Chartered Institute of Library and Information Professionals (MCLIP). For five years I was a committee member of the UK Electronic Information Group (UKeiG) and I edited their journal Elucidate; the spelling has improved since I left, but they seem to have forgiven me – I still write occasional articles for them.
If this blog isn’t enough for you, I also have a personal blog here.
Contact me at michael [at] ConsultMU.co.uk.
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