When the customs agent started to smile, I knew that things would go badly indeed. I had come to the offices of Argentina Customs to deal with the recent arrival of my books via international sea freight. Now, with a great smile, the customs agent told me that my books would not be allowed into the country, unless I paid a fine of 50 per cent of their current price (a lot of money, and more than I could possibly afford). Before coming to Argentina, I had made enquires at the country’s embassy, which had not told me anything about this problem. I had been through various international removals before, and taking my personal belongings with me had never been a problem. In any case, to cut a long story short, in Argentina it’s a big issue, and my books are currently on their way back across the Atlantic Ocean.
I had come to Argentina to work, and I felt that I needed at least some books to continue my current projects. The local university library does not have many of the texts I need. Local bookshops stock academic works by local academics, as well as translations of older works by foreign scholars. They generally do not offer texts reflective of current international debates. So I placed an order with amazon. To cut another long story short, those books did not arrive either. Even though Argentina Customs did not explain this quite properly when I asked, it seems that Argentina has banned, or almost banned, the import of foreign books. The reasons for this are somewhat unclear. However, reports found here and there and there suggest that the ban is ostensibly due to health concerns about elevated levels of lead in the ink used to print books abroad. It might also be that the ban is meant to promote the local editorial industry. In any case, getting foreign thought in printed form into Argentina is very, very difficult.
My research projects have a strong international orientation, and I cannot rely only on the texts published locally. This would be so regardless of the country in which I am based. I do not think that this is uncommon. Contemporary social research seems to result from the transnational flow of ideas through books, journals, as well as personal encounters between scholars. As I have argued in a previous post, this flow is narrowed – and sometimes stopped entirely – by a variety of impediments. Books published by the large publishing houses in the Global North may become prohibitively expensive in the Global South. The Great Paywall erected by journal publishers serves a similar purpose. And then, of course, there are constraints to the international circulation of published materials, such as those currently in place in Argentina. Of course, there are also significant counter-trends, such as the current push for open-access publishing and the general trend towards electronic publishing and the distribution of research through the internet.
This scenario raises interesting questions about the consequences of government policies which, to a substantial degree, remove scholars from the international circulation of knowledge and ideas. However, in this post I would rather like to consider another issue. Ink on paper being out of the question as a source of foreign ideas in Argentina, I fully turned to electronic sources. But can electronic journal articles and books fully replace printed materials? As I travel frequently, I have built a very substantial library of electronic sources. It contains lots of key sources for my current research and writing projects, and it is a convenient alternative to heavy suitcases full of books and printed articles. Nonetheless, this collection by far does not comprise all the texts I need. Journal articles are typically available online, and, in the worst case, paying for one that is absolutely essential to my work might be a solution. Many academic books are not published in electronic form, though. Moreover, due to international copyright regulations, some electronic publications are not available outside specific geographic areas. So, for instance, amazon steadfastly refused to sell me certain electronic books due to my location in Argentina. In this sense, electronic publishing is not comprehensive enough, and electronic texts are not readily available enough.
Then there are technical complications in work with electronic sources. I use a Kindle e-reader. As it is tied to amazon, I can easily obtain lots of books through it. However, a very unfortunate feature of many Kindle e-books is that they do not contain page numbers. Some do, but many don’t. To give two random examples, I have recently worked a lot with Kenneth Gergen’s Relational Being and with Lauren Berlant’s Cruel Optimism. Both e-books do not contain page numbers. I might find that the paragraph from which I would like to cite is at “Location 2986 of 4461”. This is not really useful in the context of academic writing, though. File formats are another big issue. Kindle files are formatted in ways that makes text easy to read on a small screen. Electronic journal articles, in contrast, are typically contained in PDF files. These are displayed page by page on a Kindle, in a tiny font that is very hard to read. Programmes like Calibre allow file conversions between a range of formats. It is rather difficult, though, to convert PDF files without odd and hardly readable results, and successful conversions require considerable skills in the use of Calibre or alternative programmes. This means that one is likely to spend a lot of time struggling with file conversion if one wishes to use electronic articles on an e-reader. Moreover, file conversion likely destroys the original pagination of a text, thus complicating accurate citing. Of course, one could always print all the articles one needs, but this might turn out to be a very costly solution. Finally, one could read articles on the larger screen of one’s computer. I find it difficult and unproductive to read long printed texts on screen, and I have never actually met any scholar who is comfortable with this alternative. Theoretically, it might work, though.
In summary, I find that going electronic is not quite a viable alternative to work with printed texts. If I wish to read a book, I can simply pick it up, open it, and start reading. When I work with an electronic texts, I may have to deal with a range of technical issues before it becomes readable at all. Problems of availability and acess are quite substantial, too. Nonetheless, under the difficult circumstances I encountered in Argentina, my electronic collection came to be an essential resource when books could not be had, and my Kindle became a vital tool. Electronic publishing clearly has enormous potential. I expect problems of the sort I mentioned to be solved sooner or later, and I would not be surprised if academia moved still further away from print publishing.