Humanities E-Book
The Online Collection
Developed By Scholars

Contributed by Charles Watkinson, Associate University Librarian, Publishing, University of Michigan Library

There has been a lot of discussion within the library community recently about the relationship between the technology we use to host and deliver content and our shared values as a non-profit, mission-driven community. Elsevier’s 2017 acquisition of the bepress publishing and repository platform shed a spotlight on concerns that had been bubbling for a while, and a day-long pre-conference to the Library Publishing Forum in May 2018 entitled “Owned by the Academy: A Preconference on Open Source Publishing Software” rapidly sold out. In a blog post following the forum, Melanie Schlosser summarized the outcome of the pre-conference:

“Publishing platforms can be a place where libraries do research and development, finding new partnerships and collaboration opportunities, working with new types of scholarship and methods, and experimenting with new technologies. The only way we can grow in this space is to be ready to fail, to be ready to experiment, and to invest as a community in open source so that we can improve these technologies and work toward a community-owned infrastructure.”

Screenshot of Media Gallery for “Lake Erie Fishermen” (University of Illinois Press, 1990)

Supporting thousands of users annually, being “ready to fail” is not an option for ACLS Humanities E-Book (HEB), but Melanie’s message resonates. Alone among major ebook collections, HEB is and has always been built on community-owned, open source infrastructure. From its inception in 1999, through its early partnerships, and since it became self-sustaining in 2005, HEB has always taken a values-based approach to its underlying technology as well as the high-quality content it selects. This has been manifested over the last 13 years by HEB’s partnership with the University of Michigan Library, inaugurated on July 30, 2005. For over a decade the system used was the Digital Library Extension Service created as part of U-M’s digital library initiatives. As that system started to show its age, HEB and Michigan’s relationship enters a new chapter in 2018 as the collection moves to the next-generation Fulcrum platform, again built by U-M Library and this time with generous support and a strong vote of confidence from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation.

As part of the visioning process over the last 18 months, the Michigan and HEB teams have talked quite a bit about the values that we share and how we wish those to be reflected in the Fulcrum platform’s design. We’ve been strongly informed by the HumetricsHSS initiative, which “Endeavors to create and support a values-based framework for understanding all aspects of the scholarly life well-lived and for promoting the nurturing of these values in scholarly practices.” Although they do not exactly map to the five values that the HumetricsHSS initiative has identified as central to all HSS disciplines, we came to the conclusion that “innovation, engagement, longevity” were the common core of what HEB and Fulcrum are trying to support. You may have seen these highlighted in recent HEB promotions.


While most known for its carefully-curated collection of classic texts, HEB was founded on the idea that it would also support scholars in innovating with new forms of scholarship. The backlist already includes some pioneering examples of XML-encoded titles dynamically transformed into HTML, with interactive features and resources not available in the print version. The Mellon Foundation’s support of Fulcrum is explicitly focused on supporting humanities scholars so they can take full advantage of digital affordances in their publishing as they are already doing in their scholarship. This means that you’ll continue to find more interactive tools, more non-textual multimedia content, and more materials that go “beyond the book” on the new HEB platform. These will continue to evolve as the development team uses agile methodology to respond to emerging needs and connect more open source modules to the core Fulcrum stack. 


HEB is often where students first encounter high quality research content in the humanities. Recent HEB initiatives such as the Humanities Open Book program collection expand access to users around the world and far beyond the community of university subscribers. However, making content easy to find and download is not enough. A commitment to engagement also means making ebooks available to users through whatever digital tools they prefer to use—be that mobile devices or assistive reading technologies. Through its commitment to EPUB 3 as the core content standard and platform design choices audited by the Michigan State University Usability/Research and Consulting Group, Fulcrum has made ensuring the “accessibility” of HEB content a core value since its inception.


As we have talked to the scholars and librarians who remain central to all the work Fulcrum and HEB do, we have found their number one concern to be the durability of digital content. Seared by encountering 404 “not found” HTTP status codes, authors are wary of entrusting their scholarship to the web and their interest in sharing the full richness of their research is often held back by this concern. That is why Fulcrum is built on institutional/data repository software as part of the Samvera open source communitywhich consists of some of the world’s leading research institutions. This also means the commitment to preserving HEB content that the University of Michigan Library makes and the workflows we use to ensure longevity are equivalent to the ways in which we treat research data from U-M’s science, medical, and humanities faculty.

All of this may sound very grand, but what does this all mean in practice for the librarians, publishers, authors, and readers who provide the lifeblood of the HEB collection? It means that when HEB’s supporting libraries invest in the ebook collection they are not only providing access for their academic communities to the most respected core scholarship in a range of humanities fields, but they are also supporting the maintenance and development of open source, community-owned infrastructure that shares the values of the Academy, catalyzes the development of new forms of scholarly publishing, and which will never be sold out for the profit of shareholders. That is something of which all the HEB supporters should be very proud.

Charles Watkinson

Charles Watkinson

Associate University Librarian for Publishing / Director, University of Michigan Press

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