In 2006 a colleague at a leading university press told me “searchability is a fad.” His comment has been on my mind ever since.
Much of the discussion about electronic publishing, at least in scholarly circles, cycles back to searchability – the idea that our books will be more useful if readers can immediately home in on key words or phrases, either within a book or across many books. I spend a good part of my day with a search engine, so it’s not like I’m opposed to searching and searchability altogether. I’m not against electronic publishing either, although I’ve long been skeptical of claims about the demise of the printed book, especially on the scholarly side.
My colleague’s point about the culture’s over-enthusiasm for searchability seems right, though, and I think he was expressing an idea that those of us in university publishing know well and should articulate more often. Usefulness often comes in bite-sized chunks, but genuine relevance is usually the product of long-form argument. University presses should do what they can to make sure their books are searchable, but should resist the deeper logic that seems threaded through our collective fixation on searchability – the implication that all books are, essentially, reference books. Read any page of Karen Ho’s Liquidated, Adam T. Smith’s The Political Landscape, or Anne Hyde’s Empires, Nations, and Families – to cite just a few extraordinary recent books from university presses – and you’re apt to learn an interesting fact or two. Read the whole thing and you may well understand the world differently.
I’ll leave it to tomorrow’s cultural historians to explain why Americans of the early twenty-first century tended to fetishize searching. (I don’t think it’s enough just to say “Google.”) In the meantime the University of Nebraska Press will continue to publish books that – even if they can be chunked, sliced, and searched – generally yield their greatest insights when consumed whole.