The American Philosophical Association is the largest learned society for professional philosophers and for decades it has organised professional gatherings for its members through three annual conferences: the Eastern division in early January, and in February and April for the Central and Pacific divisions. These events usually take place over a long weekend based around one or more hotels in cities with good transport connections and conference facilities. In common with other learned societies, the APA realised in the course of the summer of 2020 that it would not be possible to hold normal meetings during the COVID-19 pandemic and the 2021 meetings were rearranged to become virtual meetings. The digital infrastructure for these virtual meetings would be supplied by OpenWater. No special arrangements for book displays or showcases — digital or otherwise — were initially scheduled. But in November it was decided that a book display should be organised, using a digital books platform that had been used experimentally by the editors of the APA Blog.

In the summer of 2020 Exact Editions had been developing a project with the APA Blog to enable the publication of short reviews or previews of new books in philosophy: monographs, editions of classics and textbooks. These reviews were accompanied by short-term Reading Rooms which gave full access to the digital books for a limited period (a week or a month). This reading, browsing, searching access was open to any reader who followed a link given in the blog. After a predetermined time (coded in the access link) the content would stop being accessible from that Reading Room. The first blog reviews appeared in September with reviews of five books from Open Book Publishers. Several publishers  with philosophy lists supported this initiative with 18 titles appearing in temporary Reading Rooms for readers to access through a clickable link in the blog review. For the reader’s convenience in reading this posting, a long term Reading Room link to Beyond Price, David Velleman’s open access book with Open Book Publishers, is available here.

The Reading Room system has four features which are key to the way in which books can be showcased at public events: virtual conferences, interactive meetings, book fairs etc. (1) Reading Rooms are time limited and when they expire no content is available (2) the service is an access system to a database version of the book(s), so no downloads are available or offered (3) the Publisher supplies the content to be databased and initiates the making of Reading Rooms and their timing through a dashboard (4) Reading Rooms are shareable if and only if the generating link is shared – and all readers will have access to exactly the same content. There are costs to Exact Editions in supporting such a service: apart from the task of processing content to the database; maintenance; running search and serving content from the Exact Editions cloud servers. Heavy usage has already been seen from some magazine Reading Rooms, and even with much more experience is unlikely to be fully predictable.

The publisher’s dashboard for making Reading Rooms to the book
The Murder of Professor Schlick

The Reading Rooms technique with its time limited but free  access, via a shared link,  offered a practical method of providing the APA meetings with a publisher supported showcase for new philosophy titles. Exact Editions agreed to provide small collections (4 volume) Reading Rooms without charge for any publisher invited to sponsor the APA meetings, with a modest additional charge for larger Reading Room collections (8,16, 32 etc volumes on display). Publishers who would normally set up book stands at the APA meetings could choose to have a display of their titles and would be given free use of the Reading Rooms platform as an incidental benefit beyond the relatively short term of the meetings. 

The Exact Editions procedure for building a digital database requires ingesting complete PDF files in a largely automated process—specifically with a sequence of content files from the front cover to the back cover of the publication, with every page in between in exact sequence. The page images, and separately the full texts, are processed to the database. Publishers do not always archive their content to match this specification, so it is advisable and necessary to run some tests or trials for the process before uploading larger volumes of content. So publishers were invited by the APA to upload one test volume and then proceed to assemble the free collection of 4 books or larger collections, once the process had been agreed. Exact Editions also agreed to provide free bandwidth and support for the showcases—and since the showcases were to be relatively short, and philosophy is a specialist interest, it was assumed that these costs would be manageable. It might have been harder to justify this time-limited but user and usage unlimited approach if the content to be uploaded were mass market cookbooks, Minecraft Guides or manga comics. 

The APA decided to encourage virtual digital book displays at the end of October and the Eastern APA meeting starts on 7 January, so there were two months in which to recruit and process content for the the displays.  We expect that there will be 30+ titles available from 6+ publishers. The follow-on meetings in February and April will have similar displays available—perhaps more content if additional publishers come on board. With greater notice, especially to communicate the offer to publishers, it would have been feasible to accommodate 20+ publishers, some with large collections. In previous years with a conventional conference display at an APA meeting there would be 1000+ physical books available for inspection, perhaps from 20+ publishers. But these books would be much less ‘inspectable’ or ‘readable’, certainly less browsed or visited, than their digital counterparts at the APA New York meeting, and it should be a strong point for digital displays that they have a much bolder and broader outreach. With ‘normal’ academic or scholarly conferences the book displays are only available to the attendees, but with virtual conferences it should be feasible to make the book display as well as the speaker sessions and formal lectures a part of the virtual conference that can be enjoyed even by those prevented from attending in person. For conference organisers this might become one of the factors arguing in favour of developing and reinforcing the connection between publishers and academic conferences, especially those with national or international appeal.

APA Collection — opening view

For the purposes of a conference or a book display it is a convenient feature of the Reading Room platform that complete individual books can be aggregated into a collection (for a publisher, or within a publisher’s list for a specific subject category), and that these collections work as Reading Rooms for the books they contain, and can themselves be collected. The collections are organised hierarchically and at each level the books have Reading Room functionality: the books are searchable, browsable and readable page by page. A visitor to the APA meeting could limit attention to a single book, or move up to review the books from the de Gruyter collection, or start at the top and drill down from the complete APA collection.  In the case of the APA meetings the super-Reading Rooms will be timed to be available for the relatively short periods of the three meetings: Eastern, Central and Pacific. The distribution and management of access then simplifies to the business of providing attendees or onlookers with a Reading Room link to the full collection. It is therefore key that the APA (or more generally the event organiser) initiate the process and invite publishers to offer their collections to the overall project. Exact Editions can facilitate this collaboration but the legal and practical control of the individual titles remains with the publisher; before and after the event the publisher has control of the titles and can make Reading Rooms for any other purposes promotional or otherwise. Any purpose for which temporary access points to their digital content is required, either the individual books or their collection as exhibited at the APA meetings. 

This is the first of a two part account of the way time-limited Reading Rooms can be used for promotion and evaluation at major academic meetings or book publishing events. In the first part we have outlined the process used for the APA Eastern Meeting in January 2021. Some of the direct links to that open event will not function after 17 January 2021, and the reader will find that the APA meetings in February 22-27 and April 5-10 will afford additional opportunities to read and review the philosophy titles made available to coincide with those meetings. The second part of the essay will report some provisional findings and opinions from attendees and publishers at the Eastern meeting.