String ’em up! How middle managers destroy the value of institutional websites

Few things are quite as infuriating as an institutional website designed by somebody who will never ever have to use the service in question.  The designer is usually some group of bureaucrats, with a checklist of things that the service “must” contain.  Not infrequently a real user finds that the wasters have actually torpedoed any useful utility the site might have.

This reflection comes to me, courtesy of a site that shall be nameless, which has cost me the best part of two days useful work.  Around ten years ago, the institution discovered that it had access to a translation of a late Roman text in manuscript.  The translator was dead.  It decided – properly – to make this available online.

But you can see the fingers of the bureaucrats all over it.  Instead of creating a PDF with the book in it, they split it up into a PDF for every section.  It comes in 15 books.  Each book has around 60 or more sections.

This means that to consult the whole text involves opening NINE HUNDRED PDF files.  This in turn makes it impossible to use the translation, other than for odd references where you happen to know the exact reference.

No sane person would seek to make something accessible while making it inaccessible.  Only a committee could achieve this.  We can easily imagine how.

Chief Executive: “Do it!”

Sycophants: “Oh you are so forward-looking, Sir!”

(Later) Middle Manager: “Oh but what if people took copies and it appeared all over the web!!!!  Oh! Oh! Wouldn’t that be DREADFUL!!!!”

Junior sycophant: “How well you put that, ma’am!  So let’s make sure nobody can do that without spending a huge amount of effort.  We’ll divide it up into 900 pieces, accessible in a maze of menus.  That way it will inconvenience researchers, but not Chinese pirates with armies of cheap labour.”

And so it came to be, and the text remained online in theory but useless in practice.  Nobody ever cared about it much anyway; those who did were frustrated by the useless interface.

But that isn’t all.  Because a few years ago, another bureaucrat had his turn.  Someone revised the translation and produced a printed copy.

Another middle manager: “Now we’re selling a version of this, we might lose sales if we have the original online!!!  Woe!!  Woe!!”

Timid underling: “How much money are we talking about?”


Sycophant: “Clearly it must be taken offline to protect any profits.”

And it was so.

I have therefore wasted an enormous amount of time in locating an archived copy of the site, and downloading the files, with a great deal of manual intervention in order to circumvent the robots.txt file.  For I know better than to suppose that it will remain even at the archived site indefinitely.

Let’s keep our bureaucrats under control.  The best way to do so is to keep them as few as possible, and to watch the remainder like hawks.

Otherwise, one day, you too will have this experience!

Let’s not shout at the Vatican library for digitising microfilms

The Vatican library digitisation has made a bit of a left turn lately, and I’ve certainly complained about it, and I’m sure I’m not alone in this.  Instead of the high quality brand new full colour photographs, they’ve started to digitise vast numbers of rather rubbish quality microfilms.

Today a correspondent from the library gently took me to task for this, and I admit that I accept the reproof.

It’s easy for us to forget that the Vatican state has no tax base.  The whole enterprise relies upon the generosity of people who do not live there.  We are accustomed to thinking of the mighty Roman Catholic Church as a rich institution, and so it is; but mostly in things like the roof of the Sistine chapel, which are actually a responsibility and a drain on resources, rather than a source of profit.

Among this, the digitisation of the Vatican manuscripts is a mighty expense.  It has been paid for by donations, notably from the Polonsky Foundation, to whom the world now owes a huge debt.  But the digitisation can only go forward with the support of donations.

What the Vatican library has chosen to do, in the meantime, is to make as much of its manuscript collection available as possible.  They may not be able to afford to rephotograph everything just yet.  But they can afford to scan the microfilms, for which they used to charge a pretty sum – so they are being generous here – and make these available online for free to us all.

To their credit, this is what they have chosen to do.  I think we should applaud, not criticise.  Would that other libraries, like the British Library, or the Bodleian, would do the same.  It does give us some access to the manuscripts right now.

Well done, the Vatican Library.  They have lost a revenue stream, in order to benefit us all.  We should be grateful.

If you, reading this, are a wealthy man, please consider whether you could do anything so easily beneficial to scholarship as to sponsor the digitisation of the Vatican library.  If you are an ordinary mortal, like myself, please consider donating at the link here.

Viewing Cailliaud’s engravings of the pyramids of Meroe at the Biodiversity Heritage Library

The first modern visitor to the pyramids of the black pharaohs at Meroe was the 18th century Scotsman, James Bruce.  In 1821 the ruler of Egypt, Mohammed Ali, sent a huge army up the Nile and occupied the Sudan.

The next visitor, therefore, was the Frenchman Frédéric Cailliaud, who marched with the army.  Cailliaud wrote an account in 4 volumes, with a larger 2 volume Atlas of engravings. I was unable to access the latter when I wrote about him here.

But a kind correspondent has drawn my attention to the fact that the two volumes of the Atlas are indeed online at the Biodiversity Heritage Library, here and here.

I find that a PDF can be downloaded of each.  Unfortunately these are locked; but it is still vastly easier to scan through the volumes this way, than online.  JPGs of the pages are also available, but it is a 3Gb download, served at a miserable 400kbs.  My rather nice 60mbs broadband is therefore effectively throttled; and IE says it will take two and half hours to download.

However you can select pages online, and request a PDF of them be created, for you to download.  This I did, for 30-odd pages, and … the generated PDF is not locked!  That means that we can view some of them together.

The original image sizes are good, high resolution, which means that on-screen the engravings are, quite frankly, imposing.  The ones in the PDF that is generated are much lower, but still usable.

The Meroe pyramids are not listed under that name, but rather under the name of the nearby town of Assour.  They begin at plate 31, with a map of the whole area, with the pyramid fields – “Pyramides principales” at the lower right.  Plate 32 is a map of the ruined pyramids close to the Nile – these presumably are the western cemetery, and plate 33 is a depiction of the view.  Plate 34 is plans and elevations of these pyramids.

Plate 35 is a map of the main pyramid fields, north and south.  Here it is:

Plate 35: the principal pyramids of Meroe. 1821. Frederic Cailliaud.

Plate 36 is an imposing view of the north pyramids from the north-east:

Plate 36. F. Cailliaud. The North Pyramids at Meroe, from the NE

Plate 37 is the same prospect from the South East.  The pyramids at this time still had their tops, not yet blown off by gunpowder.

Plate 37. F. Caillaud. The north pyramids of Meroe, from the SE. 1821.

But there are very many further engravings, plans and elevations, as far as plate 46; and then engravings of the pyramids of Nuri, ancient Napata, where is the pyramid of the Black Pharaoh Taharqa, once ruler of Egypt and Nubia; and then more at Gebel Barkal.

I won’t reproduce them all.  But I will attach a PDF of the Meroe ones here:

I’ve rotated the pages so that you can view them easier on screen.  Well worth downloading – enjoy!

Snapshots of the secret world

They play an unacknowledged part in our universe, yet when they vanish few remember them, and there are no records of what they looked like or contain.

For the last few years, there have been a number of websites which contain large numbers of books in PDF or other format, making them available for free download.  The books are often (but not always) in copyright.

Here’s a screen shot of one of them, which I was sent.


I’m giving this, because these sites vanish quickly, and in a few years time, we may be curious to see what was available in the “Wild West” days of the internet!

Few of us could afford to purchase all the material held here, or even much of it. As library facilities collapse, as inter-library loans become prohibitively dear, such sites are invaluable to researchers who live in rural areas or do not have access to the very extensive (and expensive) collections of major research libraries.

The prices demanded for academic eBooks are very high, when you consider that they require no manufacturing process, and cost nothing to distribute.  It is not unusual to see a frivolous demand for an eBook which is the same as that for a paper copy.  Such greed naturally creates incentives for piracy.

In some countries the ruling elite behaves as if it is almost entirely uninterested in the welfare of the general public.  In Germany the elite have made that clear by importing 1 million able-bodied foreigners in one year and quartering them on the hapless German population.  That’s not going to be good for the Germans; but clearly there is profit to the elite in votes and cheap labour.

But that German elite has the same contempt when it comes to learning, for it has allowed the publishing companies to dictate some of the most oppressive “copyright” laws in the world.  One consequence of this is that there is really very little of use on the German internet.  Another consequence is that Google Books is basically useless outside the USA.

In fact there is not even much Wifi in Germany, because those same greedy publishers made “laws” such that Wifi hotspots were legally responsible for ensuring that only “legal” content could be viewed, despite the free-for-all nature of the internet.  (Although the elite have realised that this is inconvenient to themselves, so are going to rescind that particular despotic law).  To the German elite, seemingly, the German people are just cattle and sheep, to be fleeced.

But it is not just Germany, although that country is singularly unfortunate.  The same attitude may be found among the ruling elite in many countries, including the USA.

One symptom of this disconnect is the banning of pirate PDF websites, at the behest of publishers, without considering what the public welfare really is, or should be.  Education is essential.  Books are essential for education.  Yet access to books is obstructed by the greed of companies that charge impossible prices for textbooks.

I don’t know what the answer is.  But I really wish that our ruling elites would address it.

A curious bibliography: Angelo Uggeri and his “Journées pittoresques”, “Ichnografia”, “Icnografia degli Edifizj” etc

The most accessible early account, of the discovery of an ancient house in the grounds of the Villa Negroni in Rome, is by Camillo Massimo in 1836.  But for his source, Massimo refers to a mysterious volume which is online, but nearly impossible to find.

Massimo writes:

Una esatta descrizione di quattro delle suddette Camere, coi colori di tutt’ i loro ornamenti , e cen i menomi lor dettagli minutamente indicati si trova inserita nel 3. Volume dell’ Icnografia degli Edifizi di Roma antica, pag. 55. e aeg. opera dell’ Abb. Uggeri, il quale nelle Tavole XIV . XV , XVl, e XVII, diede pure le incisioni a contorno delle Pitture di quelle quattro Stanze; e nel Volume II. Tav. XXIV. fig, 1, riprodusse in piccolo la pianta dell’ intero Palazzina con le sue dimensioni, e con l‘ indice delle pitture in esso rimanenti, la descrizione delle quali si  trova anche nel citato Manifesto stampato in quell’occasione in un foglietto volante divenuto assai raro, e nella seconda Edizione della Roma antica di Ridolfino Venuti coll’ aggiunte di Stefano Piale Par. 1. cap. V, pag. 125.

Search as you will: you will not locate this volume.  You may think “icnografia” is an odd word, and make it “iconografia” but you will be no further forward.  As I remarked a couple of days ago, Lanciani quotes the title as “Iconografia degli Edifizi di Roma antica“, but this too does not help.

After a great deal of searching into the night, I have finally solved the mystery.

It seems that Angelo Uggeri was, to be frank, a complete idiot.  He self-published his works.  And he decided that giving them title pages was unnecessary.  Yes, that’s right.  You can find a volume online, and look through it, and still have no idea what the thing is titled.  Sometimes he shyly had a page which indicated his authorship – in a cursive, hard-to-read handwriting, not printed.

The volumes that I have found, all of them, belong to a series:

Journées pittoresques des édifices de Rome ancienne / Giornate pittoresche degli edifizi antiche de circondari di Roma

The text in these is in two columns, one French, one Italian.  A search for “Journées pittoresques” will return results.  But Uggeri’s maddening habit of leaving out titles means that you will not be that sure of what you have found.  A search in the French National Library site, Gallica, will return only three titles.

Curiously it was the Europeana portal that saved me.  This search gives a list of 10 volumes, all at the BNF, with no distinction of volume number or title.  They all have the same cover.  Many have the same endpapers.  You actually have to look through them to find out what’s in there.

But, blessedly, pasted onto the endpapers of one, I found this slip:


There are two series, each with volume numbers.  In fact some of the “volumes” are also divided into two, one containing the plates, and the other with the text.  I had to download almost the entire collection to find what I wanted.  For my own sanity, and yours if you pass this way, here are the volumes that you need for the Villa Negroni.  I give the link to the BNF for the volume, and attach a PDF of the relevant pages.

The scans are not very high resolution, it must be said.  The volume 2 floor plan is too small to read the scale, for instance.  Let us hope that a German library like Arachne scan some volumes.

From all this we learn that the actual title of volume 2, insofar as there was one, was “Ichnografia”! But I suggest we always refer to Journées pittoresques and specify the series, Rome.

The other two sources given by Massimo deserve a mention, while we are discussing bibliographical mazes.

The “manifesto” is actually a printed flyer, by Camillo Buti, proposing the publication of the frescoes of the house, and including a couple of samples, and a floor plan.  This is the very earliest account.  It is indeed extremely rare, and, as far as I can tell, not online.  But I learn from an article by H. Joyce[1] that “Copies of the Buti Manifesto are in the British Library, Department of Manuscripts, Add. Ms 35378, fols. 316-17, and the Victoria and Albert Museum, Department of Paintings, Tatham Album, p. D. 1479 – ’98. /2”.  Doubtless other copies are around.

The “Roma antica of Ridolfino Venuti with the additions of Stefano Piale” is another vague title.  Volume 2 of the first edition is here at Arachne.  The actual title is “Accurata, e succinta descrizione topografica delle antichità di Roma”, printed in 1763 – too early.  Volume 1 of the third edition (1824) of the Stefano Piale re-edition is at Google Books here; volume 2 here.  The text referred to is in vol.1, chapter 5, p.169 f.  But it contains nothing of special interest.  (Update: 2nd ed., 1803, vol.1, p.125 is here).

One final item is mentioned by Joyce.  It too is not online, and indeed sounds very inaccessible:

The architect Camillo Buti was quickly called in to make a plan of the house. Buti published the plan in 1778, along with a brief description of the rooms, in his Manifesto announcing the publication of the first two in a series of engravings of the house’s paintings.(5) An early annotated version of the plan drawn by someone present in the early stages of the excavation (the excavation is shown and described as incomplete) is now in the Townley collection of “Drawings from Various Antiquities” in the British Museum.(6)

6.  Although the Townley plan is incomplete, it includes information about the house’s decoration not given in any published source. I am grateful to Donald Bailey of the Department of Greek and Roman Antiquities for locating this drawing and supplying me with a copy.

The invaluable Joyce article – which I obtained today – makes plain that the Townley plan is of the highest importance.  It alone tells us, for instance, that the entrance door to the villa had a window above the door.  The “blank wall” facing the door in fact had three niches for statues in it – “Ingresso principale nella casa dipinto con Architetture e nichie di relievo dipinte dentro.”  And so on.

Fortunately the Townley papers are in the British Museum, and a Google search shows that the museum has a research project to catalogue them and place them online.  Well done, the British Museum.

UPDATE: The etchings published in 1778 by Camillo Buti are actually online at Aradne here: A. Campanella, Pitture antiche della Villa Negroni, 1778.  The monochrome etchings look far more Roman than the coloured versions.

  1. [1]H. Joyce, “The Ancient Frescoes from the Villa Negroni and Their Influence in the Eighteenth and Nineteenth Centuries”, The Art Bulletin 65 (1983), 423-440. JSTOR.

Why should I ever buy another reference book? Give me a PDF!

Recently I needed to consult a translation of an ancient author.  I don’t own paper copies of very many translations, and I never knowingly buy books that I will not read and reread.  But unusually for me, I did own a copy of this volume in printed form.

However when I searched for it, it was nowhere to be found.  I had to make do with translating some French version of the original that I found online.

Where could it be?  After some searching, I discovered a faint memory of including it in a batch of academic books that I donated to someone, in order to free up some shelf-space.  I dispose of unwanted books all the time, as anyone with any sanity must; and in fairness this is only the second book whose loss I have subsequently regretted, so I shan’t change my habit.  All the same, it made me realise that I did need access to this particular volume.

Today I borrowed a library copy, and spent a couple of hours creating a PDF of the page images, with searchable text.  Abbyy Finereader 12 did its usual job of scanning the pages, and Adobe Acrobat Pro 9 created the PDF and made it searchable.

It’s expensive to borrow by interlibrary loan, mind you.  And I had to go into a library to collect them.  A recent foot injury made the walk from the car park, and then the wait in a queue for service, particularly uncomfortable.  Paper reference books are simply not what any of us need any more.

This sort of process – of conversion of books into PDF – must be repeated up and down the world. Students with no money, and academics with no shelf space, must convert the same reference volumes into PDFs again and again and again.  Surely there ought to be a mechanism whereby this could be avoided?  After all, nobody is at all likely to buy copies of this work personally, except by a fluke (as I did).

TES article calls for translation of Latin, Greek, to be valid research goals

An important article by Dr Emma Gee of St Andrews University has appeared in the Times Higher Education supplement here.

Recently, an audience of “disadvantaged” 16-year-olds listened with rapt attention when I read from my translation of Lucretius’ On the Nature of the Universe.

Written around 55BC, this is the first surviving full-scale account of a cosmology based on atoms and void, dispensing with an active role for the gods. Lucretius’ hallucinogenic poem unpacks every aspect of the world, from the physics of colour to the anatomy of love. It is not a fossil: it is startlingly modern.

Any translation of it, therefore, must be punchy and immediate. In mine, Lucretius’ Latin hexameters play out in the rhythms of rap; the Roman goddess of love morphs into Richard Dawkins’ “selfish gene”; birds rain down from the sky like satellite debris; and the catastrophic collapse of the structures of the universe leaves us stumbling around the ground zero of our exploded certainties.

At no stage did the kids listening seem patronised or alienated. Their questions showed a keen awareness that many ideas we might consider “modern” in fact have a long history.

Last year, Edith Hall, professor of Classics at King’s College London, complained in a newspaper article about the “apartheid system in British Classics”: the subject’s enduring role as an instrument of social differentiation, based on proficiency in ancient Greek and Latin. Yet translation can make powerful classical texts available to people well beyond traditional elite audiences.

You might expect, therefore, translation to enjoy high status among classicists. But you would be wrong. The Classics subpanel in the 2014 research excellence framework, for instance, offered no separate submission category for translations. They fell under the “other” category, which accounted for only 0.5 per cent of total submissions –and no stand-alone translations were submitted at all.

Furthermore, the REF guidelines were applied in a way that militated against translation. Universities played it safe, to the extent of introducing their own supplementary limiting criteria that actively discouraged translation. A former director of research for one of the UK’s larger Classics departments commented: “We worked on the assumption that translations…simply would not be deemed to constitute research.” Perhaps more surprising, translation was marginalised even under the banner of impact. Of the 65 case studies submitted, none obviously involves translation.

Nor does the problem appear to be confined to Classics. Modern languages too had no separate REF category for translations. Among the 4,943 submissions to the modern languages sub-panel, just nine were “other assessable outputs”, which may have included translations. Many colleagues around the country have told me that they either did not produce translations or did not submit them to the REF because they didn’t think they would be valued.

The unavoidable conclusion is that humanities research has become almost exclusively inward-looking in its privileging of academic discourse for academics. Of course, those of us at the coalface knew this anyway: research is a game not about truth. But it is a shame that classicists are failing to use one of the key tools for breaking down class barriers and giving people access to many of the life-changing documents that their discipline has spent millennia preserving.

This is very well said.  I hope that important ears are listening.

When will the librarians start to throw offline literature away?

When I started my projects, in 1997, there was little online.  To get access to books, I had to visit a major research library.  I cadged a reader’s ticket, sans borrowing privileges, and made day trips.  Once there, I browsed the stacks and photocopied and photocopied whatever I could, for an exaggerated price.  Some items – many items – were confined to the rare books room, and so could only be photocopied by the staff.  This cost twice as much, and invariably involved a delay of a week.  Always the copies were very bad quality.

In less than twenty years, everything has changed.  Books are available in vast amounts online.  Access is still a thorny issue, but this will change.  We are in a period of transition.

Things once unthinkable are now routine.  I remember, in the late 90s, going to the British Library in London and asking innocently if I might photograph a manuscript.  The keeper whom I asked became very rude, almost as if I had asked for the casual use of her daughter for the night.  Today you can stroll in with your mobile phone and builtin camera.

I’ve spent much of today scanning a book containing a modern English translation of a patristic biblical commentary.  It’s hard, time-consuming work.  But I don’t actually want a paper copy.  A PDF will be far more useful to me, especially once I make it searchable.  So I am converting my three volume paper copy into PDFs.  Naturally I am somewhat irked at spending my time thus, when I know that the paper copies were printed from an electronic PDF!!  But no matter … this too is a matter of transition.  Already translations are being offered in PDF, at ridiculous prices, and these too will fall.

I don’t scan very much these days.  My days are shorter than they once were, and I am more tired.  I can’t put the output from this task online either.  But I just want the floor space.  Still, it brought back a memory or two, turning the volume on the scanner and working over the images in FineReader.  What I would have given in 1997 for the hardware and software I have today!!

But once everything is online, or at least in electronic form, what becomes of the offline material?

But while scanning, my mind drifted to a Sci-Fi novel, in which this future is envisaged.  The work is Archform Beauty, by L.E.Modesitt.  The work is written from the perspective of the heroine, a professional singer and academic in a world with a diminishing need for art music.

I was buried in the southwest corner of the lowest level of the university library. My eyes burned as I flicked past image after image in the reader, hurrying through decades of information quickly, trying to locate old photos and stories not in the link archives–or even fragments of stories …

On Monday, I’d done what I could. I awakened early and gotten in a good two hours of practice, plus some exercise, and managed to get to the university a good twenty minutes before my lesson with Abdullah. The lesson had been good.

I’d gone to the library to browse through the closed stacks and try to discover some more older sheet music that had never been scanned into the system–in hopes of finding something unique. I didn’t. Back in November, I had found a “lost” song cycle of a twentieth-century composer named Britten, called “On This Island”–very haunting and beautiful. I wasn’t that lucky on Monday.

I decided not to go back home, but to check my office. It was old-fashioned, but I’d never linked the office and my conapt. I still felt that unless the university wanted to make me full contract, they didn’t deserve instant, around-the-clock access. I really felt that way at that moment.

The first message was from Mahmed. He was smiling, but it wasn’t a condescending expression. “Luara, I just wanted to confirm that we’re on for three-thirty on Tuesday. If that’s a problem, let me know. It will be a long session. Cannon has some new ads he wants to record. We may have to schedule another session on Wednesday. I hope you can do that.” …

The second message was from a tall blonde woman.

“This is SuEllen Crayno of the Crayno Agency. Mahmed Solyman of Crescent Productions provided your codes. We’d be very much interested in talking to you. If you’re interested, please let me know.”

Was I interested? How could I not be interested, with Dean Donald suggesting that he was just dying to throw me out once he could figure out a way? …

After that, I checked the system for memos and documents. The only thing of interest was a note from the library to inform me that the section I’d been searching manually was scheduled for purging in June. Purging? Just because no one wanted to take the time to scan the information or read through it? There was no way I could search it all by June. How many other songs or song cycles were there, like the Britten cycle, that would be lost forever? There might not be any, but I had no way to know.

Still, I had to try. So I went back to the stacks and spent three hours. I found nothing. Then, I got a sandwich from the student center and ate it before I walked to the shuttle station to head home.

Will it be thus?  Administrators “purging” offline archives, once everything of importance is online?  I think that it will.

Libraries cost money.  Do we need large buildings, heavily staffed, full of paper, if “everything of importance” is online, in databases, collections, and so forth?  For a university accountant, the answer is self-evidently not.  A generation may be needed, but those volumes will be sold, the staff dismissed, and the building repurposed.

Such changes in information technology have happened before.  When the codex replaced the roll, whatever was not copied into the snazzy new book format was lost.  And only materials of interest at that time were likely to make the transition.  We probably lost half of Tacitus at that time, for instance.  Likewise when printing replaced hand-copying, we lost vast numbers of manuscripts, many irreplaceable.  Now a new gateway is at hand through which the knowledge of the human race must pass.

Perhaps we’d all better get scanning.

Photographs online about Mithras by Michael Fuller

Archaeologist Michael Fuller, who has worked at Dura Europos, has been collecting photographs of Mithraic monuments.  He modestly writes to say:

Here are a few of my webpages with images of Mithraic reliefs, altars, etc… Most of these duplicate images you already have, but a few maybe new to you.

You are welcome to add any of my images to your data base as long as I am given credit. I am pretty sure that I have some more images of Mithraic reliefs and will look. I might also be able to track down images of the lamps from the Dura mithraeum.

I shall be delighted to make use of some of these, and it is a very generous offer.

New edition of Cyril of Alexandria’s “Against Julian” is soon to appear – offline, and very pricey

In the early 5th century, Cyril of Alexandria found it necessary to write a large apologetic work.  The book was in response to Julian the Apostate’s anti-Christian work Against the Galileans. This was written some 50 years earlier by the then emperor, but must have continued to circulate. Cyril made a series of extensive quotations from the work, reorganised them into a logical sequence (as he tells us at the start of book 2),  and wrote his own reply to each.  No doubt secretaries performed much of the manual labour, and Cyril dictated replies.

10 books of Contra Julianum have reached us, and a handful of fragments of the next 10 books also.  The work is little known in English, since no translation has been made into that language.  Indeed no complete translation has ever been made into any modern language.  The Sources Chretiennes began an edition, with a splendid French translation, but only a single volume, containing books 1 and 2, ever appeared.  No modern critical edition, even, existed.  Readers have been forced to rely on reprints of the 17th century Aubert edition.

For some years Christoph Riedweg and his team have been labouring at the task of making a critical edition of the text of this huge work.  An email today advises me that the first volume, containing the text – no translation – of books 1-5, will very soon be available in the GCS series, and published by De Gruyter.  The publisher’s information page is here.  It informs us that the work will be published in November 2015, and priced at $168.  De Gruyer kindly make a PDF available also, at precisely the same price.

Everyone should welcome this publication.  Contra Julianum contains any amount of useful information about antiquity and Christian thinking.  I look forward to the second volume also!

But … what a price!  And … I say that I look forward to a second volume, but there is no chance that I will ever own a copy of either; or even be able to use it, unless I come across a pirate copy.  It will, most likely, be most used in this manner.  This seems wrong.  But then, these books are not made for you or I.

Today there was an article in the Guardian on this very subject that every academic should read.  Here are some extracts, but it is worth reading in full.

Academics are being hoodwinked into writing books nobody can buy

An editor called me up to ask me if I’d like to write a book. I smelled a rat, but I played along…

A few months ago, an editor from an academic publisher got in touch to ask if I was interested in writing a book for them. …

“How much would the book be sold for?” I inquired, aware this might not be his favourite question. “£80,” he replied in a low voice.

“So there won’t be a cheaper paperback edition?” I asked, pretending to sound disappointed.

“No, I’m afraid not,” he said, “we only really sell to libraries. But we do have great sales reps that get the books into universities all across the world.”

“So how many copies do you usually sell?” I inquired.

“About 300.”

“For all your books?”

“Yes, unless you would assign your book on your own modules.”

I was growing fascinated by the numbers so I asked how many of these books they published each year.

“I have to…” he started (inadvertently revealing that this was a target that had been set) “…I have to publish around 75 of these.” … And he’s just one of their commissioning editors. …

Another colleague, on discovering his published book was getting widespread attention but was too expensive to buy, tried to get the publishers to rush out a cheaper paperback version. They ignored his request.

These may sound like stories of concern to academics alone. But the problem is this: much of the time that goes into writing these books is made possible through taxpayers’ money. And who buys these books? Well, university libraries – and they, too, are paid for by taxpayers. Meanwhile, the books are not available for taxpayers to read – unless they have a university library card.

In the US, taxpayers are said to be spending $139bn a year on research, and in the UK, £4.7bn. Too much of that money is disappearing into big pockets.

So what are the alternatives? We could stop publishing these books altogether – which may be advisable in a time of hysterical mass publication. Or we publish only with decent publishers, who believe that books are meant to be read and not simply profited from. And if it’s only a matter of making research available, then of course there’s open source publishing, which most academics are aware of by now.

So why don’t academics simply stay away from the greedy publishers? The only answer I can think of is vanity.

Of course the last bit is rather unfair.  An academic career requires publication in reputable format, and nobody can be blamed for doing what the system requires in order to feed their families.  But it raises disturbing questions of integrity and sustainability.

An edition of Contra Julianum serves a real need.  But the high prices and closed access compromise the entire system of academic publication.

All the same, let us congratulate Dr R. and his team.  Well done!  This was work of permanent value.