An author’s experience on e-textbook writing by Dr Jon Hogg

This blog post was written by Dr Jon Hogg, General Editor of Using Primary Sources, 2017, University of Liverpool Library and Liverpool University Press.

As General Editor of the open access e-textbook Using Primary Sources: a practical guide for students, I helped co-ordinate this e-textbook project, combining the efforts of academics, librarians, publishers and software designers. The e-textbook is wide-ranging, accessible and practically focused. Over 30 historians from the UK and the USA have written nearly 30 thematic chapters. The first version launched in January 2017, with more chapters being added throughout the year.

From the beginning, we knew that this would be a different kind of textbook. I had been considering for a while the idea of creating a teaching text that offered more practical advice to students than was currently available and was going to propose the book to a publisher when I heard the University of Liverpool Library and Liverpool University Press (LUP) were planning to respond to the Jisc call for projects to explore the ‘institution as e-textbook publisher‘. We quickly put a proposal together for this innovative open access publication and once we learned of the successful bid, we confirmed the team of 31 authors and started work.

It is difficult to give an exact figure regarding how much time was spent on the project. A great deal of time was spent on planning. For example, we decided to create a prescriptive template for authors and their 7,000-word chapters, which ensured continuity of focus, emphasised practical advice and made the long-term work of those involved easier. We also planned and developed a process so that we could work with authors to identify and then digitise library materials, upload materials on to BiblioBoard and then hyperlink chapters to source materials. This sounds like a relatively simple process but, to begin with, it was time-consuming and complicated as our team was learning about the intricacies of BiblioBoard, trying to develop a consistent method of entering bibliographic information, chasing up copyright queries, and making a whole host of design and editorial decisions. Like any edited publication, the submission of authored work has been staggered, which means the work on the project has had to be quite fragmented. Keeping track of the status of all the chapters has been challenging. For parts of the project, it was relatively silent as authors worked on their content; for other times during the project, it became a full-time job as essays and archive material were reviewed, edited, uploaded and embedded.

We worked hard with BiblioBoard to create the e-textbook that we envisioned. They have been very good working partners, helping us to create bespoke features: for example, they created a new type of hyperlink between our chapters and the primary sources and the possibilities that the platform has offered us are impressive. Source materials are fully searchable, with the zoom feature proving powerful and quick, which is especially useful for medieval source materials. We can embed images, music and film, which allows for real visual variety. One great benefit is that we can easily revise, or add to, the e-textbook in the future, so the possibilities are exciting. Sustainability is something we have discussed from the beginning, and we are confident that the software will allow us to achieve this in the years ahead.

One of the biggest things I have learned during the project is that problems that might seem minor and simple to solve are often more complicated than they first appear in digital projects such as this. It is also hard to foresee the breadth of issues that can crop up during a large digital project. For instance, when working with BiblioBoard to create chapters in EPUB format – a file format that is designed to allow users to zoom in and out with ease – we had to spend considerable time thinking about how to present page numbers. Because our technical team liaised with BiblioBoard across a range of issues at the same time, resolving single issues was rarely instantaneous. At any one time the project team was working across many different areas, so keeping in frequent contact via e-mail and team meetings proved essential. With a project like this, the core team needed to know the ongoing status of the project, often in quite a lot of detail, and, as the textbook grew, we became better at foreseeing issues, rather than reacting to issues as they arose.

Would I do it again? Yes. For someone who had not worked on a digital project before, it opened up a whole range of opportunities relating to my work as a teacher and researcher. For instance, I have attended digital humanities conferences as a result, and become involved in a new digital university theme at Liverpool. I would recommend getting involved in collaborative digital projects to any academic who is willing to be open-minded, flexible and committed to a project with a central set of aims that you can be passionate about.

In the coming years, we hope that Using Primary Sources will enhance our students’ learning experience by offering practical, relevant and accessible advice in a way that supports research-led teaching and learning. As a showcase for some of the marvellous archival material held at Liverpool, we also hope that the resource will be used far and wide.

Exploring the ‘institution as e-textbook creator’ has been a long and resource-intensive process, but one that has been hugely rewarding from a professional point of view. Although significant commitment is needed to undertake and sustain these collaborative projects, they encourage innovation and creativity, develop individual and institutional expertise, and foster ideas for future projects.

I often think about how this project originally came about – essentially, by chance. It is safe to say that universities could do more to encourage and fund major teaching projects that are strong enough to attract external funding. Resourcing needs to be generous, with dedicated teams with varied expertise put in place to manage, administer and complete ambitious digital projects, and think of innovative ways to create new digital possibilities for students.

[This blog post is taken from a longer article by Dr Jon Hogg, available here]


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