Let me begin with an overview of Brown University Digital Publications (BUDP), which originated from conversations with the Mellon Foundation in 2014 about advancing the production and recognition of long-form born-digital scholarly works. While a large part of Mellon’s investment went to building out the digital infrastructure that is available to university presses, the foundation also sought to support the community of scholars seeking to legitimate the expanded possibilities that digital publication offered for developing and presenting their research. To this end, a smaller number of grants through the foundation’s Digital Monograph Initiative was awarded to institutions that were experimenting with university-based models of support for faculty, ranging from developmental editing and design support to assistance in placing the work with suitable publishers. At Brown, an initial grant of $1.3 million launched an experimental collaboration between the Dean of the Faculty and the University Library to encourage and support Brown faculty to showcase their research and scholarship on digital platforms, in ways they could not achieve in a conventional print format.

By 2019, an external review of digital scholarship at Brown identified the digital publication program as a signature program for the university. That same year, we received a $775,000 renewal grant from Mellon. The program’s growth has continued to accelerate since then. In 2022, the program had outgrown its “initiative” phase and Brown University Digital Publications was established. The next year, BUDP joined the Association of University Presses as an affiliate member — a testament to Brown’s unique contributions to the scholarly publishing ecosystem, from its novel university-based approach to digital content development to its highly productive partnerships with member presses. To date, three born-digital, open access works developed through BUDP have been published by leading university presses and have received major recognition. Shahzad Bashir’s A New Vision for Islamic Pasts and Futures (MIT Press, 2022), the publication featured in this forum, was shortlisted for the Royal Institute of Philosophy’s Nayef Al-Rodhan International Prize in Transdisciplinary Philosophy. Furnace and Fugue: A Digital Edition of Michael Maier’s Atalanta fugiens (1618) with Scholarly Commentary (University of Virginia Press, 2020), co-edited by Tara Nummedal and Donna Bilak, was awarded the 2022 Roy Rosenzweig Prize in Creativity in Digital History by the American Historical Association, and Massimo Riva’s Shadow Plays: Virtual Realities in an Analog World (Stanford University Press, 2022) won the PROSE Award for best e-product by the Association of American Publishers and has been shortlisted for the ACLS Open Access Book Prize and Arcadia Open Access Publishing Award. All of these publications have reached thousands of readers across the world in a short amount of time.

Fourteen other works approved by our faculty board are currently in development. One of these, under contract with Fordham University Press, serves as a case study for the Mellon-funded Embedding Preservability project, conducted by NYU Libraries. The goal is to support publishers and other multimodal content developers in making choices about technology and design that will ensure long-term access to complex scholarly works.

As a producer rather than a publisher, BUDP engages in many different areas of collaboration. While BUDP manages editorial, design, and digital production, we look to our press partners to manage peer review, copy editing, and marketing. In the majority of cases, Brown hosts the work on a university server and is responsible for maintenance and preservation. I should add that BUDP is platform agnostic — we’ve so far developed publications using Scalar, WordPress, Manifold, and PubPub; Fulcrum and Quire will soon be brought into the mix. Finally, Brown may or may not hold the copyright to the work. In the majority of cases, we do.

Acquisition begins at Brown. Through an annual call for expressions of interest issued to all faculty in the humanities and humanistic social sciences, we seek projects that demonstrate scholarly excellence and potential for disciplinary impact, engage intellectual questions that lend themselves to sustained argumentation and narration, and seek to advance or enhance scholarly ideas, arguments, and conclusions through innovative uses of digital tools and/or data. The books we take on push scholarly contribution beyond the capabilities of print and come to us as clearly conceived and articulated projects, with considerable research completed, to fit within a reasonable timeframe for completion. Faculty members selected for this opportunity receive a course reduction, arranged in consultation with their department chair and the Dean of the Faculty. I should add that at Brown, peer-reviewed multimodal monographs are given equal weight in the review process for tenure and promotion. We are especially attentive to our early-career scholars, one of whom was promoted to associate professor last month. I regularly visit the Tenure and Promotion Committee to share reviewer reports and answer any questions about the selection, development, and publication processes.

Once we match a project to a press, we work with the acquisitions editor to move the project through peer review. Either a “digital partial” (a staging site reflecting overall design, organization, and navigation with one to two sample chapters presented) or the full draft site (the staging site with all content in place, possibly with some placeholder content) undergoes rigorous review based on current guidelines for evaluating digital scholarship. In the case of A New Vision for Islamic Pasts and Futures, Victoria Hindley, Senior Acquisitions Editor for Art, Architecture, and Design at MIT Press, sent the work out for review at both stages, which resulted in constructive feedback on both the narrative and the user experience. We then entered a second design phase to implement these revisions and build out site additions. A New Vision for Islamic Pasts and Futures offers a view of Islam that goes beyond conventional theological, nativist, and orientalist approaches. Inviting readers to imagine Islam anew, Bashir decenters Islam from a geographical identification with the Middle East, an articulation through men’s authority alone, and the assumption that premodern expressions are more authentically Islamic than modern ones. Focusing on time as a human construct, the book interprets stories and images, analyzing Islam as phenomenon and as discourse — observed in built environments, material objects, paintings, linguistic traces, narratives, and social situations. Bashir draws on literary genres, including epics, devotional poetry or prayers as well as modern novels; art and architecture in varied forms; material culture, from luxury objects to cheap trinkets; and mixed media including photographs, graffiti, and films. The book’s layered digital interface allows for explorations of and engagement with this rich visual material and multimedia evidence that a printed volume could not facilitate.

Islam, in Bashir’s telling, is a vast net of interconnected traces that appear to be different depending on the vantage point from which they are seen. The multimodal digital form enacts the multiplicity of the project’s analyses and perspectives. Its shape-shifting quality bridges the gap between sensing Islam and understanding it, between feeling it as a powerful presence and interpreting it through analytical tools. This interactive monograph opens with a networked table of contents. Portals lead to different time periods across different parts of the world, inviting readers to explore Islam via a path of their choosing. By designing a custom pathway that follows their own interests and queries, the reader creates their own journey while traversing the world of ideas and evidence that the author has curated. This groundbreaking interface, says Bashir, “performs, rather than simply states, the book’s argument — namely, that we see pasts and futures as fields of unlimited possibility that come alive through a combination of close observation and ethical positioning.”

Since its publication in August 2022, this open access publication has reached more than 12,000 unique users across 142 countries. The global reach attained thus far is very encouraging. The data suggest that rapid and broad access to scholarship via the internet and social media is transforming not only the environment within which academic work happens, but also the readership of academic work, connecting scholarship — in ways not seen before now — with audiences beyond the academy. Lisa Anderson, writing for Foreign Affairs, notes that “readers enter this inventive and fascinating electronic work at various times and places — from contemporary Isfahan to fourteenth-century Samarkand, from the skyline of modern Istanbul to the expanse of the Arabian desert — and can make unexpected connections, experiencing Bashir’s vivid elaboration of the breadth of Islam with each click.”

Experimentation with new scholarly forms is taking place across a number of libraries, humanities centers, and university presses. “Multimodal Digital Monographs: Content, Collaboration, Community,” a white paper I co-authored with Sarah McKee, Project Manager for Publishing Initiatives at the American Council of Learned Societies, explores this landscape in depth via case studies of eight published or in-development works. Funding organizations, such as the Mellon Foundation and the National Endowment for the Humanities, have made much of this innovative scholarship possible. As models proliferate, stakeholders in digital scholarly publishing are looking to the future and considering next steps: How can we increase the visibility and reach of humanities scholarship to audiences within and beyond the academy? How can we expand and support the voices and perspectives represented in the practice and production of reimagined forms of scholarship? How is this enterprise sustainable?

The Brown University Library-MIT Press collaboration, exemplified by A New Vision for Islamic Pasts and Futures, provides a promising path forward. Besides the field-changing union of form and content that characterizes Bashir’s digital monograph, the partnership also reimagines scholarly publishing, bringing together the distinct capabilities of the research library and the university press in the service of scholarship and public understanding. Monograph publishing in the digital age must be intentional and ambitious, looking beyond audience reach to audience engagement, speaking to new readers, and challenging assumptions. Monograph publishing must also center the lived experience and knowledge of diverse authors, a shared commitment that forms the basis for a second collaboration between Brown University Library and the MIT Press.

The multimodal book series On Seeing, devoted to visual literacy, centers underrepresented perspectives and understudied questions about how we see, comprehend, and participate in the visual world. The inaugural title, Kimberly Juanita Brown’s Mortevivum: Photography and the Politics of the Visual, is a powerful examination of the unsettling history of photography and its fraught relationship to global antiblackness. The work is published in paperback and as an open access, interactive digital edition. The latter includes a community engagement toolkit and employs a Consentful Tech framework with the goal of “using and making technology in a way that creates safety, that practices good consent, that is based in care, and that acknowledges that when safety and consent are absent, those who are more marginalized experience greater harm.” In working together to produce and disseminate essential knowledge for broad audiences, Brown University Library and MIT Press are also addressing issues of scalability and sustainability. The print book, which provides a revenue stream to help offset costs, is offered at a reasonable price and distributed globally. An enhanced, open access edition ensures the work will reach the widest possible readership. This digital edition introduces a less bespoke, more economical approach to interactive design and development. It also features uniquely digital content, including a community engagement toolkit tailored to each specific volume.

As demonstrated by Brown University Library’s partnerships with university presses, cross-organizational collaboration can make meaningful interventions into how and for whom knowledge is generated and shared. By making a commitment to one another in the service of broadening public understanding, research libraries and university presses can join forces to expand the boundaries of scholarly publishing in new and necessary ways, reimagining the monograph to engage a wider readership for the greatest possible impact.