Five Years of Bryn Mawr Classical Review

James J. O'Donnell

To appear in the proceedings of the 1995 meetings of the North American Serials Interest Group

When I addressed the NASIG meetings in Chicago in 1992, I spoke of the remote past and the immediate future: as classicist practicing the craft of editing an electronic journal, those were the things I knew about. It is a sign of our time now that I am here today to speak about the *history* of the electronic journal. Something surely has changed when an entity so novel to so many imaginations already has a history. What I wish to do here is summarize briefly where we have been, then draw a few lessons that may be useful for those reading what we produce or thinking about how to cope with such artifacts.

BMCR began in 1990 with a first-rate idea that arose with my colleague Richard Hamilton, Paul Shorey Professor of Greek at Bryn Mawr College. He saw that there was a need for a book review journal in classics that would give concise, timely reports of new work, in a field where reviews were often so long delayed that they appeared after the book had slouched off to the remainder tables. There was nothing electronic about his idea. It seemed feasible for several reasons:

The first good idea was Hamilton's; I was lucky enough to have the second. A year or so earlier, I had taken to the networked waves at first because of a specific database I could consult no other way, and then was hooked by the emerging culture of that period best embodied by Willard McCarty's fabled years as editor of *Humanist*. So my suggestion was that we experiment with distribution of the journal by e-mail. We settled on a plan to sell the four issues per year of the journal cheaply ($10) -- in fact today we distribute about 7 issues per year for $15 -- and to give it away on the Internet. In November 1990, we printed our first edition and shipped its e-version on the network.

If any of you heard unusual loud noises about that time, it was the sound of e-mail boxes around the world crashing to a halt under the weight of a 250K file, BMCR 1.1, slamming into them. For the first two or three issues we repeated this assault on the integrity of the network until it dawned on the present writer -- who is sometimes slow but not entirely stupid -- that the electronic journal did not have to be merely a clone of the paper version and that indeed a book review journal was an ideal vehicle for fragmented distribution, one review at a time. From that time on, we have followed that practice.

Our list of subscribers to the listserv-variant distribution list began to grow. New subscribers would ask for "back issues" and I would tell them to clear the decks for incoming fire and launch the Internet bulk-packs of preceding "issues" (still bundled together in retrospect to resemble the paper version). As the number of new subscribers grew and the number of back issues grew apace, this task grew increasingly wearisome. I was rescued in 1992 when the first small but perky gopher poked its head above the Minnesota tundra. Within a few months we had an arrangement with the University of Virginia Libraries to archive our back issues there as individual review files and make them available with WAIS-indexing over the Internet. The Virginia site was one of the first and remains one of the most distinguished scholarly resources on the Internet. It is a pleasure to praise and thank John Price-Wilkin (now of the University of Michigan) and Kendon Stubbs for their support over the years at Virginia.

The success of BMCR was remarkable. Publishers paid us the homage of sending us their books and of quoting our reviews out of context in their blurbs. Classics is a relatively homogeneous field in America, in that those who practice it generally have wide interests in the field and know at least a little of current work across a broad range. This creates a community of readers and writers with excellent word-of-mouth potential. I think it fair to say that we are now one of the standard resources for American classicists.

By 1993, our success had attracted attention and emulation. With the collaboration of Eugene Vance (whose turn it was to have the initial idea) and Paul Remley, both of the University of Washington, we founded Bryn Mawr Medieval Review, created in the image of the original. The first reviews for that journal shipped in the summer of 1993 and it has now reached a level of stability and consistency that compares credibly with BMCR. We also created a separate purely notional rubric "Bryn Mawr Reviews" for those who wished to subscribe to both journals and receive no overlap (for some items are indeed shipped to both lists, e.g., a book on Vergilian influence on medieval poetry). The number of subscribers accelerated its growth in that year, partly because of the new journal and partly because the general population of the academic Internet was growing explosively itself. By 1993 we had about 800 BMCR subscribers; we now have about 2500 subscribers for the three journals and see constant growth. We will shortly ship our 1,000th review and a typical year will now see publication of approximately 250 items.

It is past time to let our gophers burrow back down into the prairie and move on to the arachnid metaworld of the WWW. A welcome grant from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation is allowing us to do a thorough job of reconsidering our practices for the long term and we hope to have improved distribution and archiving by 1996. A particular problem for us has been the transmission of Greek alphabetical characters and diacritics, essential for classicists' discourse, on the network. We hope to solve that as a subset of what we are doing and in so doing make things easier for electronic publishing for classicists of every kind in a variety of forms.

Our lessons from this exercise have been many and rewarding.

First, I would insist on the fact that our point of departure was not a zeal to experiment with computers; it was precisely a good old-fashioned editorial idea about something that people would want to write and to read. That explains our success more than anything else.

Second, that relatively homogeneous community of classicists and in particular our cadre of longtime companions in unindicted coconspiracy gave the enterprise a center of gravity at the outset. (The medieval review has been slower aborning both because the fields covered by "medieval studies" are more diverse and dispersed and because we had no such well-organized cadre of colleagues in place at the outset.)

Third, the networked nature of the publication makes many differences. Chief among them is the diversity of our audience, embracing many people who do not define themselves as professional classicists. This can only be good for a discipline like ours, which runs the risk of becoming a hermetic club for experts, dwindling over the years, if we do not find ways to address a wider public with our best work. BMCR has subscribers on six continents from every kind of networked address and we know from correspondence that many of our subscribers are indeed "The Enlightened General Reader", just as many more are indeed professors of classics.

Fourth, an accidental innovation has enriched us in a particular way. Publishing one month our list of Books Received, Hamilton had the further good idea of marking with a star those not yet placed for review and soliciting qualified volunteers to identify themselves. This is now a regular ritual and we brace ourselves for the flood of e-volunteers. We will give any credible claimant a trial and we find that the results include the excellent, the ordinary, and the awful in proportions that resemble closely (uncomfortably closely!) those that obtain among reviews written by carefully chosen friends and colleagues of the editors. The value of this practice, however, is that it not only increases our coverage of hard-to-place book but it draws the community of those who read the journal and those who write it closer together. Hamilton and I teach at privileged institutions on the east coast and our network of friends and relations includes a high percentage of people like ourselves. That is a formula that too often in the past produces mandarin classes telling the rest of the world what to think. With BMCR/BMMR, the rest of the world more easily becomes part of the conversation.

Fifth, with our journals, the review only begins the conversation. We have guaranteed right of reply to authors and published many. This has taught us what we did not specially want to know but perhaps already did, that few scholars respond with grace and high-mindedness to a bad book review, but it also means that reviewers write in a different tone, knowing that their censures are themselves open to censure.

Sixth, we have paid close attention very recently and will continue to study the behavior of those readers who come to consult our archives. Conclusions can only be preliminary but one is tantalizing. We are a general interest book review journal, covering many topics in the broad chronological regions of our interests. But if you have a special interest in some way orthogonal to our purposes, the ease of e-access and e-searching means that you can make of us a specialized journal for your own purposes. We noticed, for example, a period when there was a particular run on any and all of our items having to do with issues of gender and sexuality in antiquity. We have no measure of the ideological or scholarly affiliation of our readers, but we make some surmises and imagine people who would not pause to leaf through five years run of a general interest journal in search of two or three items per issue, but who quite happily ask a couple of questions of a WAIS-index and get, with instant efficiency, just the items most likely to suit their interests. This reduces the need for specialized journals precisely because one large umbrella can function as a specialized journal for those who want it. The theoretical and practical implications of this insight, if valid, are far from obvious but deserve exploration.

The conclusion of greatest general applicability, however, is the most general and should be the most obvious. The success of specific enterprises in electronic publishing in academia will be most closely correlated to their intellectual and organic coherence with the interests and practices of scholars and scientists. We are past the time when we can press e-experiments merely for the sake of adventure and entering, I believe, a time in which it makes increasing sense for more and more journals to consider e-distribution, not because a zealot or a tyrant claims that this should or must be done in response to the inexorable law of the future, but simply because it makes good practical sense. I said at the outset that it was striking to be speaking now of a piece of the *history* of the e-journal. What we can now look forward to is a time when we can stop thinking about the future of e-journals for the good reason that we will have all gone to live in it.

James J. O'Donnell
Professor of Classical Studies
University of Pennsylvania