During the month of Open Access week (October 19-25) we will be highlighting a number of guest posts from University of Iowa Faculty and Staff who have personal experience with Open Access. We appreciate their contributions.
The fourth guest post is by Ed Folsom, the Roy J. Carver Professor of English at The University of Iowa. He is the editor of the Walt Whitman Quarterly Review, co-director of the Whitman Archive , and editor of the Whitman Series at The University of Iowa Press. He is the author or editor of numerous books and essays on Whitman and other American writers.
Walt Whitman Quarterly Review Goes Open Access
Walt Whitman has always been a kind of open-access author. While he did guard the copyright to his books (primarily because as a bookmaker he was always concerned about having a say in how his physical books looked), he was most concerned with getting his poetry and prose widely and inexpensively distributed. He continually made his work available to publishers overseas, to translators, and to newspapers, magazines, and anthologists. He saw himself as the first democratic poet, trying to create a truly democratic voice, one that broke down hierarchy and discrimination and privilege. For a democratic literature to function effectively, all citizens needed access. When Whitman died, he put his work in the hands of three literary executors in order to make it widely available; he never set up a protective estate that would police access to his published books and unpublished manuscripts and notebooks. The executors quickly published the materials they had, and Whitman’s work traveled into the public domain expeditiously. Anyone today can quote or reprint or put online his poetry and prose without any worries about rights or permissions.
Whitman scholarship has long been marked by this same democratic spirit. Whitman scholars are legendary for their generosity in sharing their work and supporting young scholars who are challenging and questioning the assumptions of previous generations. When Kenneth M. Price and I decided back in the mid-1990s to create the online Walt Whitman Archive, we were determined to make the site open and freely available to students, scholars, and general readers around the world. Thanks to the generosity of the University of Iowa, the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, the National Endowment for the Humanities, the National Historical Publications and Records Commission, along with other agencies and private contributors, we have been able to keep the growing archive of Whitman’s work and work about Whitman freely accessible to users of the Web.
With the generous support of the UI Library’s Digital Research & Publishing unit, the Walt Whitman Quarterly Review—the international journal of record for Whitman studies, published at the University of Iowa since 1983—went online in 2010. As part of the Iowa Research Online initiative, all back issues of the journal were digitized and made freely available through the new WWQR website. As was the case with many academic journals going online in the early 2000s, WWQR embargoed the most recent year’s issues and made them accessible only to subscribers; meanwhile, we continued producing and distributing print issues. During the five years we have been online, we have learned a great deal about our readership that we never knew when we were solely a print journal—how many readers access our articles, for example. It became clear that most readers—even our print subscribers—were now reading the journal online, and the expensive print issues were largely going unread (like my Sunday print copy of The New York Times, which I have delivered to my house only so that I can have access to the Times online site, where I have read most of what’s in the Sunday paper long before the unread print copy arrives).
We have, since 2010, been making WWQR articles available on the Walt Whitman Archive, where they are linked to the Archive’s bibliography of Whitman scholarship. Readers, then, can access WWQR journal articles either on the Archive site or on the WWQR site maintained by Iowa Research Online. This past year, I began discussions with members of the WWQR Advisory Board, with digital librarians at Iowa, and with my RAs, about moving the journal entirely online as a fully open-access publication. There was surprisingly little resistance and in fact some very real enthusiasm, and the decision solved what were becoming increasingly problematic financial concerns. The costs of printing and distributing the print copies, as well as the costs of paying for a subscription fulfillment service, were steadily increasing, even while our subscriber base was holding steady. To make the transition, we have added compositing work to the tasks the WWQR RA now handles, and our first issue—the first number of volume 33 of the journal—appears this week, appropriately, as a contribution to Open Access Week. In collaboration with the Digital Scholarship and Publishing Studio, we have added color and undertaken some modest re-design in order to create a new look that works effectively online while also maintaining the feel of the thirty-three-year-old journal. I’m proud of what we have been able to accomplish in a short period of time, and I look forward to working with the Studio to make the full transition to a new-old journal, available worldwide to anyone interested in Whitman—a journal that is now taking a giant step toward realizing Whitman’s dream of free and equal access to the ongoing understanding of the ever-evolving democratic writing that Whitman initiated, nurtured, and continues to sustain.